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6 tips for transitioning into a split office setup

Cathy Reisenwitz

by Cathy Reisenwitz on May 26, 2020

Experts are divided over when workers will get back to the office after COVID-19. Google is looking at June 1st at the earliest. A report from the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University recommends holding out until August. But both Google and Harvard agree that the return should be staggered in order to protect workers.

The Harvard report recommends starting by letting 20% of at-home workers back into the office. Start with a few days per week and then expand to five days as testing ramps up.

Not only does working in shifts reduce office density, but it also prevents overcrowding on sidewalks and mass transit. But it also comes with challenges, including the fact that some workers will feel less connected to the rest of the company. Here are six tips for keeping workers safer, happier, and more productive as companies transition into a split office setup.

1. Don’t rush everyone back

While you may be tempted to get everyone you can into the office at least some of the time, that’s not really necessary.

“We may see some companies realize they can run their businesses effectively with a much smaller office and many people working largely from home,” said Elizabeth Brink, principal at global design and architecture firm Gensler. Dr. Anna Tavis, academic director of the Human Capital Management Department at the NYU School of Professional Studies also predicts that many people will continue working from home indefinitely. “We kind of assume that collaboration means physical presence in one place,” Tavis said. “But now we’ve learned that’s not the case.” Indeed, the average company sees a 10% to 43% increase in productivity after going fully remote. And in a recent survey, 54% of workers said their productivity had improved since working from home full-time and 64% said their work quality has improved.

Google won’t require workers with caretaking responsibilities or other special considerations to come into the office. You may also want to encourage workers who live with healthcare workers or “essential” workers to stay home. The Harvard report recommends bringing workers who have recently tested negative and show immunity in reliable antibody tests back into the office first.

2. Get everyone on the same page

Now is the ideal time to invest in project management software. If you wait until some people are back in the office, the drive to have everyone use it will be diminished since some employees will once again be able to walk over to a coworker’s desk to get a status update on an ongoing project.

Plus, project management software can help mitigate Zoom fatigue. Project management software serves as your team’s source of truth when it comes to each project’s updates, statuses, assignees, due dates, files, and more. Examples include Asana, Notion, Trello, Monday, and Basecamp. Pre-set notifications and reminders for due dates and changes mean you spend less time Slacking people about who’s doing what and more time making progress. Project management software that offers visibility into others’ schedules, tasks, and workloads can be especially helpful for partially remote teams.

You may not even need to invest in new software, but just better leverage what you already use.

“We found that it’s not so much about needing new tools but instead, leveraging existing tools to foster greater collaboration during quarantine,” Corporate Recruiter Lauren Munroe said about her team’s use of SharePoint and Microsoft Teams to collaborate on projects simultaneously since moving to WFH.

3. Get chatting

Speaking of Slack, if your team doesn’t already have a chat app, now’s the time! For similar reasons, you don’t want to wait until some teammates are able to talk things through in-person to encourage widespread adoption of chat.

Good chat software lets you send and thread instant messages to individuals and groups. It’s also nice to be able to search chats and snooze notifications. Other examples include Hangouts, Glip, and Twist. The ability to start a video call inside the chat app is nice, as is timezone awareness if your team is distributed. Some apps allow you to set your status so colleagues know when you're busy or free, in a meeting, or it’s outside your work hours.

A chat app can also help you re-create some of what’s great about being in the office. After moving to WFH, Chief People Officer Meighan Newhouse created new chat channels for this purpose. “Water cooler” is for workers to check in and share updates. “Lock-down” is where they share relatable tales from quarantine. VP of People Carrie Pinkham added a “CEO,” “wellness,” and “family Fridays” channel. The last is “where employees post old and new pictures of loved ones, which seemed fitting during this time. We added new tools like Donut to pair employees for get-to-know-you chats,” Meighan said.

If you’re a Slack user, get the most out of it by syncing your Slack status with your Google Calendar.

4. Set up videoconferencing

Speaking of video calls, video conferencing software is obviously a must. Chats and phone calls are great, but there’s nothing like seeing someone’s face in real-time. This becomes even more important when everyone is working from home. Video conferencing software makes the conversation a little bit more like you’re in the same room. Video conferencing software facilitates on-demand or pre-scheduled video conferencing among two or more people simultaneously. Generally this software integrates with your calendar system and provides built-in screen sharing and chat functionality. Examples include Skype, Zoom, WebEx, and GoToMeeting. Facebook Messenger also recently got into the game with their Rooms product.

Since not everyone’s home internet is super fast, now’s a good time to choose video conferencing software that allows workers to call into the meeting toll-free from their phones.

Video conferencing is another good way to bring employees together for fun and camaraderie. At Clockwise we do lunch Zooms where our Office Manager Czar divides employees into smaller groups where we eat and catch up.

5. Share everyone’s status

It’s a good idea to have everyone, regardless of whether they’re working at home or in the office, set their working hours and add their WFH or OOO to their calendars. To easily share this information with a team, many workplaces have team calendars. Clockwise streamlines this process by adding everyone’s individual WFH or OOO to their team’s calendar automatically, so if someone forgets to update either their personal or shared calendar everyone is still on the same page.

6. Upgrade workers’ work from home setup

Especially since we don’t know how long some workers will have to continue working from home, it’s worth it to spend a little money to ensure they’re as productive as possible.

First, make sure everyone who’s still at home has the fastest internet possible. Have everyone measure their home internet connection speeds using services like fast.com or Speedtest. For more accurate results, the Verge recommends making sure your computer is connected to the right network instead of, for instance, your ISP’s lower-speed wireless hotspot. If workers’ speeds aren’t good, or they’re running out of data before running out of month, consider giving them some money to upgrade and/or invest in a mesh network or wifi extender. To save, check out COVID-19 deals from ISPs.

Then offer them a little money to upgrade their desk, chair, light, monitor, mouse, and keyboard. If they have that stuff at the office, let them bring it home. For example, Clockwise gave all employees $100 to buy a new chair at the start of WFH and let us bring anything we were using that we could carry home with us from the office.

Going forward

Staggering your comeback to the office can be a great way to balance the benefits of an in-office environment while still keeping employees reasonably safe. The trick is to make sure no one feels left out and everyone is able to work productively whether they’re home or at the office. Making sure you have the right technology and equipment makes all the difference.

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz is Head of Content at Clockwise where she oversees the Clockwise Blog and The Minutes Newsletter. She has covered business software for six years and has been published in Newsweek, Forbes, the Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications.

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