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We’re trying a petition-based approach to get people back to the office ASAP

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
Crossing that bridge when you get to it.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

We’re in the midst of what is essentially the first and largest work-from-home experiment in human history, and things are about to get even more interesting. As state governments begin to lift stay-at-home orders, companies across the United States are grappling with the million-dollar question: When and how should we reopen our offices?

Covid-19 presents an HR challenge unlike any I’ve encountered in my 20-year career, which includes roles as Twitter’s first HR lead (both pre- and post-IPO) and now as head of people at Cloudflare, the web-infrastructure company. Navigating the shift to a remote workforce was one thing, but determining when and how to shift back to office culture is another matter altogether, and it is fraught with important nuances.

While health officials have released general guidelines for social distancing in offices, such as limiting occupancy to 20% and requiring six feet of spacing between desks, there’s no definitive playbook for employers to follow when it comes to reopening offices. And unlike a lot of HR crises or potential crises, there is no historical precedent from the modern world that we can learn from.

Ultimately, employers have been left with the difficult task of deciding which reopening approach works best for their organization. Perhaps this is why 45% of companies have not yet decided on a reopening date or plan. Some big employers in the Bay Area, like Twitter and Facebook, have given employees the option to work from home permanently. According to a new survey of IT decision-makers by 451 Research, 67% of respondents expect their work-from-home policies will indeed become long-term or perhaps permanent.

At Cloudflare—a global company with 13 offices and 1,300 employees, nearly all of whom were based at one of our facilities before the pandemic—we’re taking a different approach, allowing some employees to get back into the office as quickly (and safely) as possible, and deciding who by having them petition for it.

Why? Four months into this work-from-home experiment, the novelty of working from home has worn off for many of our employees. “Zoom fatigue” has set in, people are craving in-person social interaction, and many are finding it difficult to draw clear boundaries between work and leisure time. More importantly, for some people working from home is immensely challenging and in some cases unsafe.

After speaking with employees across several of our offices, it became apparent that a number of our people have found themselves in these untenable work situations. We know that getting these individuals back into the office as quickly and as safely as possible must be prioritized in our reopening plans.

In order to comply with current health guidelines to limit office capacity to 20%, we’ve enacted a phased reopening plan, allowing a small subset of employees to petition to re-enter the office and considering each situation on a case-by-case basis.

While this is admittedly an experiment-in-progress, here are some early best practices we’ve coalesced around so far:

Conduct interest surveys with your employees

When evaluating options for reopening, our first order of business was to check in with employees to find out how they’re adjusting to working from home and to gauge their interest level in returning. So far, we’ve surveyed employees across four of our offices (Beijing, Munich, Lisbon, and Austin, Texas) and have determined that 10% to 15% of those employees wish to return to the office as soon as possible due to challenges at home. Anticipating room for 20% of staff in those buildings, we needed to consider early on whether or not it’s possible to safely accommodate these employees.

Clearly define what a challenging home situation is, and conduct interviews to assess specific needs

In order to draw a clear line between viable and non-viable applicants for limited office spots, it was important to set a clear definition of what it means to be “challenged” at home. After all, one’s idea of a “challenge” could be as relatively easy to solve as an uncomfortable desk chair, or as significant as living with an abusive partner. For the purposes of the petition, we define “challenge” as whatever significantly impedes one’s ability to work. Additionally, we interview each and every person who has requested office re-entry to better understand their current situation and needs. This helps us calibrate on “challenging” situations, and will help us prioritize if ever the need exceeds the capacity.

Consider not only applicants’ home situations, but their roles within the company

In addition to employees’ home situations, we also consider what job each person plays within the company to understand what’s required of their role and whether or not their current home situation supports or impedes those requirements. For example, an account executive just a few years into their career who lives with many roommates may find it difficult to find a quiet spot—or enough bandwidth—to conduct their customer calls.

Set expectations around what the office will look like upon return

Some employees assumed the office would look and feel the same as it did pre-pandemic. We’ve found that when we paint a clear picture of what it will look like in reality—required face coverings and health screenings, inaccessible conference rooms—the number of interested applicants drops by half.

Practice protocol to ensure a safe office environment

We have outlined specific protocols in compliance with official health guidelines to ensure that the small subset of employees who do re-enter the office can do so as safely as possible. Some of these measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in our offices include: at-home temperature screenings before employees come into the office, required face coverings, desk seating no less than six feet apart, frequent sanitization, and allowing only one person in an elevator at a time.

We’re writing the playbook as we go, and there are sure to be more learnings over the next six months and into 2021. Today, what matters most is putting our people—their health, their safety, and their needs—first. Office culture has always been in our DNA, but we acknowledge our workplace will not get back to “normal” for a long time. We can, however, hope that in supporting our people through this turbulent time we’ll eventually get back to better.

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