What Back-to-School Initiatives Can Teach Us About How to Improve Workplace Efficiency

/ Christine Andrukonis

For working parents, 2020 has been a rollercoaster, to say the least. Setting up a home office, figuring out distance-learning and child care, keeping everyone in the family emotionally stable through technology crashes, constant schedule adjustments, and social and economic uncertainty have all made this lap around the sun inherently tricky. The back-to-school fall season has been particularly challenging, as parents have made difficult decisions about whether and how to send their students back to the classroom, waited for school districts to figure out longer-term staffing and technology needs, and tried to wrap their arms around complicated new safety procedures.

Regardless of your kids’ age — from elementary to university — you may have experienced first-hand the successes of these initiatives and witnessed their failures. From ill-prepared colleges that were forced to close within a week to primary schools who struggled to keep tots away from one another, there are ways we can take these learnings and apply them to our own workplace efficiency.

No matter how much we wish it were different, company culture and dynamics need to be flexible for the foreseeable future, as the pandemic continues to evolve. Here, we explore the hard lessons — and some wins! — from the back-to-school trials that can shape our company plans:

Remember, there’s no such thing as over communication.

One of the most stressful aspects of the COVID-19 rampage is how unpredictable it is, with school and business closings, changing health guidelines and spiking cases. This has made it challenging — if not impossible — to plan further than a month or so into the future. Even when there is little new information, it’s still essential to keep communicating. Generally, during the back-to-school season, those administrations that were the most candid, open and transparent about their plans, their challenges and their guidelines saw the most successes. When thinking about your current workplace efficiency, one way to streamline all efforts is to stay in constant communication with your teams, via as many channels as possible.

No matter how mundane (“We are following the current status report of cases in our city”) or vital (“A team member has tested positive for COVID-19 and we are closing physical offices immediately”), the goal is to keep everyone updated. By keeping employees in-the-know about the journey you’re on with leadership, health officials and internal task forces, they will feel reassured every step of the way.

Embrace a hybrid working company culture.

When schools opened back up, many gave options to families: come to the classroom every day, a few days a week, or not at all. For example, many universities went fully virtual, while elementary schools separate students into cohorts so they could come into the classroom a few days a week. For older kids (and ahem, their parents), the first few weeks were spent adjusting to new protocols — for both online and in-person. No matter what level though, all schools needed to communicate what would happen if cases spiked again. Through every step, teachers/principals were tasked with finding ways to keep all students connected. The same is true for businesses: not everyone feels comfortable or can come into the office. Because of this, leadership needs to create ways to connect employees virtually, encouraging everyone to participate as they can. By celebrating a hybrid company culture, you make those who choose to remain remote feel part of the team.

You can do this by creating virtual pods or discussion groups for cross-functional teams where employees of similar level can discuss their current day-to-day — both professionally and personally — and have a safe place to vent. You should also seek employee feedback on what types of resources would be helpful for them to remain connected to one another, without it being yet another digital happy hour, when many are already in the throes of Zoom fatigue.

Set clear rules on physical space and health guidelines.

Luckily, physically separating professionals is a tad easier than asking a kindergartener to keep six feet of distance from their classmates. Even so, if you are opening your office, there should be clear information about physical space and health guidelines. Not only does it help those commuting in to feel protected, but it also maximizes workplace efficiency, since there are no miscommunications about where they can be (their designated space) and where they can’t (congregating by the water cooler). This was most successfully executed in the classroom setting with plexiglass separators or desk/chair set-ups that maintained the recommended separation, as well as tape on the floors to direct traffic flow in the hallways.

In terms of sanitation and cleanliness, don’t forget to offer sanitizer and masks in key locations, hang up posters with easy-to-digest messaging about washing hands, wearing masks, cleaning surfaces, and so on. Some schools are also instituting regular temperature checks and mandatory daily health assessments, like the Ruvna health app. Visible and daily reminders like these can help reassure employees that the company is doing everything it can to prevent the spread of the virus.

Define — and share — the rules of remote work. 

By now, most teachers have given their students a list of rules for online learning. These include very tactical things like keeping your cameras on, remaining in your chair throughout the class period, participating via chat or by raising a hand on the platform, and submitting all work via the shared virtual classroom folder. In the workplace, remote rules will look different for each team. Make sure that managers work with their teams to define new team norms, and discuss everything from employees’ optimal meeting times, to whether and when cameras need to be on to maintain a sense of community. Then make it a point to give every professional the time, tools and resources they need to succeed.

Create a blueprint for plan B (and C and D).

Think about how schools around the country have had to shift their plans. As communities and schools have adjusted to an uptick in cases or clusters, they’ve been forced to change their plans pretty dramatically – from full scale closures, to scaling back and enforcing stronger safety measures. Take for example, the University of Florida that saw a significant uptick in cases because kids were partying. In response, the college released a statement saying that things like congregating and drinking in large crowds would result in consequences from their student conduct board. Thus, they run the risk of being suspended if they engage in unsafe behaviors.

If you are opening your offices, there’s a likelihood that at some point, you will need to shut your doors, depending on the government guidelines for your zip code. This is why having a tentative blueprint for plans B, C and D, will help mitigate chaos when the inevitable happens.

Have the right staff in place, prepped and prepared.

So, about those plan B’s, C’s and D’s? You need the right staff in place to handle transitions, should they happen, at any point. And, in the meantime, you also need the right leaders armed with answers to the many questions employees will have.

For parents, the go-to person was likely your child’s teacher or an administrator. Many businesses have created a COVID-19 response team that is given the responsibility of owning the pandemic/remote work procedures, responses and policies. This committee includes representatives from all support functions — including HR, technology, legal, and other critical groups. As we move forward with reopening plans, make sure roles and accountabilities are clear within each of your backup plans so you can maintain workplace efficiency.

Ask — and listen to — feedback continuously.

We are all growing weary of the word ‘unprecedented,’ but, truly, no company or business could have predicted what 2020 would hold for their industry and workforce. As you create, edit and communicate changes in working norms, don’t forget to ask for feedback. What could you be doing better? What causes your teams the most anxiety? How are your people balancing the demands of their personal and professional lives? How can leadership help to set better, stronger boundaries between work and home? What resources can leadership provide to improve workplace efficiency — remotely or in the office? What’s working, what’s falling short, and what should be next?

By asking these questions, and promptly acting on the issues that arise, you are modeling flexibility, responsiveness, and resilience for your teams. As schools around the country are proving, our daily lives can and must continue pushing forward, despite the uncertainty caused by a constantly changing health crisis.