Strategy & LeadershipHR StrategyBusinesses are neglecting exit strategies in their return to work planning

Businesses are neglecting exit strategies in their return to work planning

The time has finally come for leaders to begin planning the return to work. But is this all that needs planning? A key area of neglect at present is the cultivation of exit strategies for organizations, with many unprepared to deal with the impact of another COVID spike. Brian Kropp, Chief of HR Research, Gartner, shares his thoughts on this, and how organizations can be covered on all fronts as they return to the workplace.

Ever since the UK Government announced its approach for gradually lifting lockdown restrictions, business leaders have been busy planning every aspect of the return to work: appointing management teams, redesigning the layout of the workplace, introducing new health & safety measures, and rewriting codes of conduct.

In most cases we’ve seen, businesses have focused on interpreting guidance on what constitutes ‘COVID-secure’ to create safe working environments. They have considered what the whole employee experience will look like, from their commute right through to where they have lunch. However, these strategies are missing a critical component, with Gartner research highlighting that only 33% of organizations have built an exit strategy into their plans.

You can understand why exit strategies are being neglected. With all the effort involved in preparing for the return to work, many business leaders will be reluctant to even consider plans to shut them down again. However, exit strategies will be critical for businesses over the coming months.

Agile response

First and foremost, there remains a lot of uncertainty about how COVID-19 will impact us over the coming months. Despite infection rates continuing to fall across the UK, and the Government lifting restrictions, the prospect of a second wave of the coronavirus is a very real possibility. Even if it doesn’t occur on a national level, evidence from across the world suggests we will continue to see ‘clusters’ of cases until a vaccine is widely distributed.

This may all seem quite pessimistic, but in these difficult times, the success of each individual business will come down to how well it adapts to the current environment. Part of this is how quickly and efficiently it can react to any outbreak. For example, can the organization instantly shift operations remotely, or shift its resources away from the area impacted by the virus?

An exit strategy can help a business reduce downtime caused by enforced closures or widespread staff sickness, protecting revenue and improving its resilience. This could be crucial as we approach times of economic uncertainty.

Employee confidence

The operational considerations for businesses are significant, but another challenge is how to restore employee confidence and wellbeing. In the past few months, business leaders have been forced to ask employees to adapt to new working structures, deliver results in the shadow of the biggest health crisis of our lifetime, and cope with the uncertainty of furloughing and redundancies.

Now, many employers are faced with having to ask staff to return to work in spite of the risks. A study by Bupa Health Clinics has found that 65% of workers are anxious about their return to the office.

However, an exit strategy can be a valuable tool in boosting employee confidence.

We are finding that perception of safety is just as important as the actual level of safety for employees in the return to work. Employees want to understand the measures the company is putting in place, and how those measures guarantee safety. A clearly defined exit strategy can be a great way to demonstrate that health is being prioritized in business decisions and earn the trust of employees.

Data transparency

With businesses becoming increasingly responsible for the physical and emotional wellbeing of staff, the COVID-19 crisis is expected to shift employee attitudes to sharing personal data with their employers. It will spark a trend of companies becoming much more involved in employee health monitoring, and will transform the way they perceive and use data.

Speaking to a range of business leaders, we have found that 59% are already planning to collect data on self-reported coronavirus symptoms, and 51% are looking to capture temperature data. Meanwhile, 25% are considering requesting data on contact tracing, and 22% on COVID test results.

As reliance on data increases, there will be a number of difficult ethical decisions for businesses about what data should be captured and how it should be used. For example, can the data captured to monitor general health also be used to observe productivity and performance? These are principles that businesses will have to agree with employees in advance.

The development of an exit strategy is a great way to kick-off these conversations about how businesses can leverage employee data moving forward. In this scenario, there is a clear path from monitoring, tracking and sharing data to managing the threat of an outbreak, and employees will be more likely to engage in open dialogue.

Develop your escape plan

There are many cases in business where preparing for the worst-case scenario means protecting the long-term prosperity of the organization. Every company has an escape plan for if their building were to catch fire, and they practice these exit strategies over and over to guarantee effectiveness. Now, a fire is an unlikely event in most workplaces, but the preparation process reassures staff, protects brand image, and reduces the risk of disaster.

Given the unpredictability of the coronavirus at this stage, businesses need to put that same care and attention into strategies for managing a new wave in COVID-19 cases. And as part of that process, leaders can get thinking about the agility, employee care, and use of data that will be vital for operating in the shadow of the virus over the coming months.

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