Return to on-site work

Manager guide to preparing for back-to-the-workplace conversations

Make time to reflect

The COVID-19 pandemic has asked a lot from managers. In addition to maintaining your unit’s operations and supporting your employees, you changed your own work practices and responded to changes in your life outside of work. After such an eventful time, you may have mixed feelings about returning to onsite work. Whether you are excited to plan for your team’s new normal or experiencing feelings of burnout, one thing is for certain – your back-to-the-workplace mindset will affect your team’s success and engagement during the transition.

Self-awareness can help you be more present in conversations with employees and make it less likely that your emotions or biases about returning to onsite work get in the way of constructive conversations with your team. These questions will help you be more aware of your own goals and emotions regarding back-to-the-workplace planning.

  • What one word captures your feelings about returning to onsite work?
  • What are the top two priorities for you/your unit in the coming year? How might the return to onsite work advance these goals? How might the transition slow your team’s progress?
  • How did telework and/or flexible scheduling during the pandemic help your unit? What did you notice about individual employee’s performance and engagement during remote work?
  • What issues have you experienced managing workplace flexibility? What can you learn to manage those concerns more effectively?
  • How will I know if I should ask HR for assistance with my team’s transition? Am I willing to ask for help?

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Be clear about your role

The purpose of work-life conversations is to address barriers that may prevent employees from being successful in their jobs. It does not mean a manager becomes an employee’s confidante or personal problem-solver. Being clear about your role helps you manage employees’ expectations and may reduce apprehension you may have about talking about personal concerns in a professional setting.

A manager’s role is to create an environment where employees feel supported in sharing personal concerns that may affect their work performance. This means being prepared to listen actively and empathetically when employees share their concerns with you. It can also mean asking questions that invite them to share but do not require them to disclose private information, such as their own or family members’ medical conditions. Probing about personal information at work has potential risks or may introduce unconscious bias and should be avoided. The tips in “Plan your conversation” (page two) will help you get the conversation started.

Managers are not expected to have all of the answers. They are expected to know when and how to ask for help. The University has a rare opportunity to reset workplace norms and transform the way we work together. We will all benefit if managers communicate with one another, with HR and with senior leaders about challenges they are facing. Build in a time to consult and learn during your back-to-the-workplace planning.

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Keep the whole person in mind

Planning for returning to the workplace is a complex project that involves sequencing conversations, monitoring new information, establishing new processes and meeting deadlines that are both self-imposed and set by organizational leaders. While you are juggling the many back-to -the-workplace tasks, keep in mind that what is returning to our workplaces are people. The past year has challenged individuals and families in unimaginable ways.

Here are examples of challenges employees may disclose in your return-to-work conversations. Managers are not their employees’ therapists and no one expects you to help your employees solve these issues. Knowing they may come up allows you to prepare your empathetic response and to educate yourself about UW resources like those listed below.

Child and elder care. Caregivers cannot perform at their best if their family members are not safe and well cared for. Employees may be unable to find child care (many providers closed during COVID-19) or are hesitant to enroll adult loved-ones in care facilities or daytime programs because they experienced fear and separation while the pandemic was at its peak. Caregivers may also be concerned about their child’s anxiety about returning to school, their parents’ safety when there is no one home to monitor their daily activities or whether the vaccines and social distancing will continue to keep everyone they love safe.

Financial well-being. Many families continue to experience financial hardships caused by the pandemic. Employees who are the sole income-earner for their families may be fearful of losing work, which can lead to performance anxiety and burnout. Employees in financially stable nuclear families may be supporting relatives who lost-income during COVID-19.

Mental health. Numerous studies have documented increased rates of depression and anxiety since the start of the pandemic. Employees may experience heightened levels of stress while planning to return to onsite work and be uncertain about how to support their well-being.

Systemic racism. Social protests, murders by police and public attention to racism and injustice were in the spotlight during the pandemic. Members of BIPOC communities may feel isolated when they return to on-site work, particularly in units with little racial diversity.

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Prepare for your back-to-the-workplace conversations

1. Create workplace flexibility guidelines for your unit.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but proactively communicating what is not possible can reduce anxiety for employees by increasing transparency, building trust and helping them make proposals that are feasible. Ask your unit’s HR administrator or HR consultant if you need help determining what positions are suitable for telework and what policies need to be considered when reviewing requests for flexible work arrangements .

While UWHR policy sets a baseline, organizational leaders will have discretion about many workplace staffing decisions. Keep in mind that the University is encouraging managers to be innovative in how they approach workplace flexibility while supporting UW’s in-person community. When determining what is and isn’t allowable in your unit, make sure you can apply your parameters consistently and can justify them to your employees and your leadership. The questions below will help you identify parameters to share with your employees:

  • What is your unit’s philosophy around telework and flexible work arrangements and how does your team fit into that? Units focused on providing student services may want to continue to build their organizational culture around in-person, onsite collaboration, connections, and services.
  • What is the ideal number of employees to have onsite during business hours?
  • Is there a core block of hours that all employees are expected to be available to clients/colleagues each day? Setting core hours does not mean employees need to be working onsite but it does mean work schedules need to include the core.
  • How might an alternative schedule impact response to clients and services?
  • Are there special events or peak work periods where employees will be expected to work onsite or during specific hours, even if the schedule conflicts with their routine telework or alternative work schedule?
  • Are there certain services or meetings that should occur in person whenever possible, whereas others can occur remotely?
  • What is the ideal amount of time to pilot flexible work arrangements?
2. Share a timeline for return-to-the-workplace communications and conversations

After planning your organizational timeline, you will need to help individual employees plan for their return to onsite work. Managers should not make decisions about any one employee’s request for flexibility until they understand the needs of every employee and the unit leader’s approach. Consider starting with a team meeting where you share guidelines for flexible work arrangements (see “Create workplace flexibility guidelines for your unit,” above) and a timeline for return to work conversations and decisions. Then, recap what you’ve shared in an e-mail prior to meeting with individual employees (see below), as applicable, to listen to their concerns and proposals.

3. Prepare an agenda for employee meetings

It is important that every member of your team has the same information about the return to onsite work. If manageable for your team’s size, schedule one-on-one conversations with each employee and start by recapping what has been shared in unit meetings and written communications, and then asking whether the employee has any questions. Plan to ask the same questions of everyone on your team. Consistency helps guard against unconscious biases and we often learn something new by asking intentional questions of people we interact with regularly.

Consider incorporating discussion of telework or flexible work arrangement requests and completion of telework agreements into the employee’s annual performance evaluation meeting.

Review UW’s back-to-the-workplace guidance and adapt the agenda below to plan conversations with your employees.

Agenda for employee meeting

a) Review the purpose of the meeting. For example, be clear that your goal is to listen to the employee and remind them that a decision about any request they make will come later, after you have talked with everyone on the team and can plan for the team’s success. Give them a deadline for when you will follow-up with them.

Let your employees know in advance if you would like them to send a written proposal for their return to onsite work prior to your conversation and, if so, what it should include and how far in advance you need their information. Or, you can let them know the meeting will be a time to talk things out and no written preparation is needed.

b) Review what is known about the return to onsite work and your planning timeline. For example, remind employees they will receive a minimum of thirty days-notice before they are expected to return to work and any dates when onsite team meetings will occur.

c) Ask if the employee has any personal commitments that may affect their return to onsite work. The University’s back-to-the-workplace guidance encourages managers to extend telework flexibility to employees to employees who have been working remotely through September 13, 2021. If the employee’s responsibilities require that they return to the workplace before September 13, listen to their needs and ask what solutions, if any, they have identified.

d) If your unit’s workplace guidelines allow for telework or flexible work arrangements, and the employee is in a position typically suitable for telework, ask the employee if they want a telework arrangement or new work schedule that will take effect after they return to onsite. Listen actively and ask follow-up questions to understand:

– How will your work benefit from teleworking or a flexible work arrangement?

– If applicable – What does the employee need to address performance issues you identified while they were teleworking during COVID-19? Be sure to be specific about your concerns (e.g. lack of a timely response, missed deadlines, forgotten tasks) and share concrete examples.

– What is your proposed work schedule?

– What will you need from your manager and others to be successful?

e) Remember, you do not need to have an answer immediately: it is ok to let the employee know you are going to consult with HR or your organizational leader about ways to balance your unit’s needs with the employee’s circumstance. Other scenarios to be prepared for are:

– An employee’s request to return to onsite work earlier than requested.

– A disclosure of a medical condition. Tell the employee that you do not need to know what the diagnosis is, only what they need to perform their position successfully. Direct them to their human resources consultant to discuss the disability accommodation process.

– An employee who discloses that they may look for work elsewhere if their ideal work arrangement can’t be approved. Tell the employee you will follow up and consult with HR consultant.

– An employee who is excited to return to onsite work but wants to know how they will be supported if colleagues are teleworking.

f) Recap next steps, including issues that you will be discussing with HR or your manager and guidelines for your employee to submit a draft telework agreement and/or proposal for a flexible work arrangement. Be clear about when you will follow-up. If you don’t have answers by the expected date, provide the employee with an update and let them know when you will follow up again.

4. Approve, deny, or provide alternatives to the employee’s request

As soon as all employee requests are known and evaluated, communicate decisions back to requesting employees as applicable noting the pilot period on workplace flexibility approvals.

Not all units, teams or positions will be able to accommodate flexible work or telework arrangements. If you are not able to grant the employee’s requests, be empathetic in your reply and communicate the operational or performance-based reasons why the request could not be granted.

Consult with your unit’s HR administrator or HR consultant for UW resources you can share with employees who disclose challenges with caregiving, mental well-being or financial distress.

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