The start of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 changed the face of work for many Americans. Early in the pandemic, millions of people across the nation transitioned from working in an office to working from home in order to help curb the spread of the virus and adhere to social distance policies.
Now that vaccinations are widespread and available to the general public, more and more companies are working to transition employees back to life in the office. While working at home is a perk for some, it turns out that most employees are ready for the shift, according to a recent Eden Workplace Return to office Survey. According to data from that survey, about 85% of the 1,000 employees surveyed stated they were ready to return to the office.
That said, some workers are hesitant to return, and understandably so. There are still many unknowns, and business owners and employers will likely need to reduce hesitation and ensure a smooth re-entry. To do this, business leaders can develop a plan with the help of industrial and organizational (I/O) psychologists to showcase the thought and care put forth to remove potential obstacles and reduce employee risk of COVID-19 spread. I/O psychologists can be extremely useful when crafting re-entry plans for businesses, which is part of why there’s a high demand for this type of psychologist right now.
What Is An Industrial and Organizational Psychologist?
An industrial and organizational (I/O) psychologist is a type of psychologist who specializes in addressing workplace issues. This is done by applying psychological principles and methods while working alongside human resources, marketing, and/or research and development teams.
Though psychologists have historically held academic or practical roles with clients, the I/O psychologist most often works in corporate settings. I/O psychologists rely on strategies and tools to best support employee health and wellbeing, improve workplace productivity, assess employee satisfaction, and resolve conflicts in the workplace. This important role has been shown to improve workplace culture and the overall environment, making the corporate setting an inviting place to work.
Obtaining a degree in I/O psychology can be rewarding, as the psychologist can use what they have learned in practice and while earning their degree to make a difference to those around them. Improving engagement while enhancing individual and organizational performance for all is a compelling reason to enter this field of psychology.
How to Help Businesses Create An Employee Focused Re-Entry Plan
For 60% of employees, a hybrid work environment is preferential. In contrast, only 34% of office workers noted in the survey that they want to go back to the office full time.
Given this shift in employee preferences, employers may want to consider adapting to provide work-from-home opportunities that may not have been an option prior to the pandemic. For businesses unfamiliar with this work model, or for businesses that have only offered remote work to a select few, the professional skills of I/O psychologists are more in demand than ever before.
For those returning to the office, an employee-focused re-entry plan is a crucial component of a successful transition back into the workplace, especially given the overall employee hesitation regarding a return to the office. But, if at least part of the workforce is able to remain remote, the re-entry plan for in-office staff may be easier to implement — especially when it comes to finding ways to distance employees from one another.
When building a re-entry plan, business owners should start by following all government guidelines and mandates for re-entry. Employers may also consider putting together a team from each department, including human resources, legal, risk compliance, and facilities, in order to gain insight and help with creating and implementing the re-entry plan.
Business leaders should also be conscientious about putting together a realistic timeline for creating the re-entry plan. This includes allotting time to employees to review and provide feedback on proposed plans before they are expected to return back to the workplace.
The following factors should also be considered when building a return to work plan, including allowing enough time for needed adjustments to the building and workspace:
Flexible work schedules and location
Consider flexible work schedules if hours of operation allow it. This will allow employees to be spaced out beyond six feet while in the office. If there are multiple office locations, ask employees if they have a preference of locations, and divide them up to further reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Ensure that all work schedules have enough management and IT resources available, so employees are provided the right amount of support to complete their workday.
Promote health and wellness for employees
Enact a transparent health and wellness program for employees, complete with daily screenings. This can include temperature checks and daily questionnaires to assess risks and symptoms. Though vaccines are available, not all employees will get one, so ensure personal protection equipment (PPE) and social distancing rules and guidelines are adhered to. Decide if there will be a vaccine requirement, and how it will be enforced.
Have clear guidelines in place for how to handle the information related to COVID-19 testing, including the type, frequency, the implications of a positive result, the use of the results, and how refusal to participate will be handled. Establish screening procedures and training prior to re-entry and implementation. Ensure compliance with ADA, HIPAA, EEOC, OSHA, and other regulatory agencies regarding confidentiality and medical testing.
Create a phased re-entry plan for those returning to workplace
Rather than have all employees return simultaneously, decide who will come back first, who will remain remote, and who will be hybrid. The most vulnerable may need to be the last to re-enter in order to avoid possible transmission and having to close the office.
Stagger the in-office staff in the start in order to monitor workflow and space configurations. This will help to determine the best way forward. Consider creating smaller workgroups to limit employee interactions and moving around the workplace.
Clear and open communication for plans of re-entry
Open office space to facilitate collaboration was popular prior to the pandemic. Right now, however, employees may still need to maintain at least six feet distance to adhere to pandemic guidelines.
How will employee workspaces change to provide distance without sacrificing collaboration? This is not limited to work desks, but also to conference rooms, lunch spaces, elevator capacity, etc. Where distance can’t be provided, plexiglass barriers may be a solution.
Improve sanitation and ventilation in the workplace
Employers should have visible sanitation and ventilation efforts implemented throughout the day. Touchless alcohol-based sanitation stations in shared spaces should be provided, as well as ample amounts of PPE available for employee use.
Fresh air systems and improved HEPA air filtration should also be considered, along with UV light sanitation. Businesses may want to replace soft surface furniture with hard surfaces that can be more easily sanitized. Reducing clutter in workspaces also makes for easier and more frequent cleaning by designated staff throughout the workday.
Create space and implement clear social distancing guidelines
No matter what your re-entry plan looks like, clear and open communication is critical for a return to the workpplace. The plan should be provided well before re-entry occurs, allowing time for review and concerns to be raised.
Encourage open communication from employees to help ease fears and hesitation about the transition. An isolation plan for positive results should be considered, as well as plans for other scenarios that may occur.
Support for working parents
School systems have different plans in place. This includes hybrid models in which students only attend in-person classes on certain days, which means that providing support for working parents is crucial. Employers should be ready and willing to accommodate working parents during this transition.
The offer for remote work, staggered schedules, generous leave, and other accommodations should be considered. Stress an “open door policy” with working parents to request adjustments in their scheduled workday. This helps to provide working parents a better work-life balance as the school transition continues to unfold.
Expert Tips for Your Strategic Re-Entry Plan
The best strategy to implement your re-entry plan is one in which the employees’ safety and wellbeing is at the forefront.
According to Thomas Hawkins, head of HR for Electrician Apprentice HQ, businesses should use a phased approach, be flexible, and err on the side of caution.
Mary Alice Pizana, HR manager for Herrman and Herrman PLLC, noted that their re-entry plan includes reducing team sizes and having directional signs in high-traffic areas to reduce person-to-person contact.
By creating an internal poll or questionnaire to determine comfort levels, concerns, and how their life has changed (especially for parents), employees can help create a successful re-entry plan, said Jenna Carlson, HR director for Music Grotto.
Is a Career in Industrial-Organizational Psychology Right for Me?
If you have an interest in subjects like behavioral science, management, psychology, engineering, product design, and statistics, pursuing a career in industrial-organizational psychology may be right for you.
By pursuing a degree in I/O psychology, students can further develop a skill set needed to excel in the field. The skills needed to be successful as an I/O psychologist include:
- Adaptability: I/O psychologists should have a firm grasp on time management, enjoy new challenges and ever-changing environments, and work with a wide range of personalities. Most I/O psychologists are contractors, so they will have to adapt to frequent moves and juggling workflow between jobs at multiple organizations.
- Critical thinking: To improve the workplace, I/O psychologists should be innovative, have strong analytical abilities, and have a knack for fostering creativity in order to successfully implement new systems and training.
- Data analysis: An I/O psychologist will analyze data to determine how organizations can best use this information to improve workplace satisfaction, employee retention, and implement effective training measures.
- Emotional intelligence: Working with diverse groups requires I/O psychologists to be able to adapt to different personalities and styles of learning. The ability to balance empathy and understanding while maintaining professional boundaries with vulnerable employees is critical.
- Tech savvy: The ability to learn quickly and adapt to new technology is essential in this role. I/O psychologists must be able to use various client organizational systems while working virtually, including successfully tracking data and implementing programs.
Preparing for a post-pandemic workplace is unfamiliar territory for everyone, including I/O psychologists. Most businesses and organizations will need unique solutions tailored to their needs rather than catch-all plans for employee re-entry. In order to successfully navigate this new landscape, it is very important that I/O psychologists and businesses work to support employees to the best of their abilities while ensuring the safest workplace possible.
In order for re-entry to be successful, employees must feel that their voices have been heard and see the measures put into place to facilitate the transition. Otherwise, the return to life in an office is not going to be nearly as simple — or as successful — as it could be.