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Returning to the office: What HR leaders need to know

An interview with Raymond Hall, head of HR for JLL Americas, about re-entering the workplace

HR leaders are playing an increasingly pivotal role as companies gradually welcome workers back to their offices.

We talked with Raymond Hall, head of HR for JLL Americas, about the challenges his team faced first closing offices and then planning re-entry for more than 30,000 employees across the region’s more than 150 offices. Below he also offers advice for HR leaders about ensuring a successful return to the workplace.

Q: What were your initial concerns around employees working from home when JLL closed its offices, and how did you address them?

A: The pandemic is something we could not have anticipated. It created the necessity to change the way we work, learn and communicate. HR has been at the center of these changes.

When we closed our offices, I had two primary concerns. The first was the potential of increased workload. It can be very challenging for some remote employees to unplug from work, especially when their normal routine has been disrupted. Balancing personal and professional time at home with so many competing priorities can be difficult. To help manage that stress and anxiety, we invested heavily in new training and well-being resources to support that transition.

The second concern was about the lack of person-to-person communication. To solve for that, we increased our manager training to help them understand how to manage remote teams, grow their relationships virtually and keep employees engaged.

Q: What type of flexibility is JLL providing to employees as offices reopen?

A: The first employees who returned to the office were those in jobs that are most productive in an office environment. However, there are others who have personal obligations that may prevent them from coming into the office, whether it be child or elder care, commuting issues for those using public transportation, or their high risk (or that of a loved one) for COVID-19. For those employees, their managers have exercised flexibility. We are supporting those employees and their needs — ensuring that we protect their psychological and physical health. 

HR's role is core to ensuring that companies take the necessary steps to make sure there is easy access to resources to enhance employees’ mental health and well-being."

Q: Have you been involved in the re-entry planning and execution process? If so, how?

A: Yes, absolutely. When we limited staffing in our facilities to only essential employees, we immediately started working on re-entry and formed a multidisciplinary task force. Our team was responsible for working with our business leaders and our frontline managers to develop our re-entry playbook — a how-to guide on reopening offices safely and efficiently in accordance with local guidelines and regulations. We’re implementing strict protocols our offices must follow before being granted approval by the senior leadership team to open, and I'm a part of that approval process.

We also made sure employees knew their managers are their first point of contact. We provided our managers access to necessary training to deal with ambiguity, lead remote teams and recognize the signs and symptoms of emotional distress to more effectively support our employees and the new ways of working.

Q: How did feedback from employee surveys factor into the re-entry process at JLL?

A: Our approach to re-entry has been shaped by listening to our employees. We used three mechanisms to understand how our people were feeling. First, we posted a daily question to our intranet home page. Second, we conducted a formal, all-people survey to understand their views on returning to the office and what support they need from JLL. We heard from more than 50,000 people, gaining valuable insights. Third, we created a special portal for employee information about COVID-19. Employees could provide feedback via the site or have their questions answered by experts in real-time. Through this feedback we learned that the majority of our people want to return to the office in some capacity. We also learned that they continue to be concerned with their health and safety, as well as with child and family care.

Q: What were your initial concerns about re-entry for employees?

A: My main concern was the emotional and psychological health of our employees. We knew we had to address these sources of anxiety and assist our people in managing their mental health. Communication is extremely important to keep people engaged. So, we established a consistent cadence of communications from our Americas CEO and senior business leaders to help people stay informed about our performance and our outlook, while also encouraging candid conversation about the challenges people may be facing. We also wanted to reinforce that our firm is prioritizing employee health and safety by implementing recommended public health measures.

Q: Do you have any advice for fellow HR professionals around re-entry and any lessons you’ve learned that are worth sharing?

A: Keep things simple and make sure you have a plan for handling multiple rounds of re-entry and re-exit over a period of time, so you are prepared for fluctuations in COVID-19 infection rates. Transparency and flexibility will be key to your return-to-work plan. And make sure HR has a seat at the table to help drive these efforts.

It’s also important to consider the psychological impact of physical changes to office space. Based on your space, you may need to limit access to certain areas, implement directional signage, formalize employment shifts to limit occupancy, require the use of masks and stagger start times to account for elevator capacity. There are a multitude of factors to consider and they all affect the employee experience. The more you can do to prepare people for what the new space looks like, the steps they can take to stay safe in the office, and show them how they can operate effectively within it while still being able to collaborate, the better. We created a campaign around re-entry to help educate our employees in advance of them coming back and trained our managers on how to engage their teams while many of them may still be working remotely.

Remember that this is an extremely stressful, uncertain time for people. HR's role is core to ensuring that companies take the necessary steps to make sure there is easy access to resources to enhance employees’ mental health and well-being. It’s not just good for our people, but it's also good for the business. It is sometimes difficult to do that because HR professionals are people, too. We are experiencing this pandemic along with the people we need to support. It’s critical that we do what we can to educate ourselves and stay in contact with each other.

Finally, tap into your network of other HR professionals. Use the re-entry resources that are publicly available — we have several on our website as do many others — to help prepare yourself and your people for a safe and successful re-entry to your workspaces.