What's in your return-to-work plan? Employer strategies for the post-covid office transition

Ashley Sava

May 6, 2020

As stay-at-home and social distancing efforts continue to help flatten the curve, government officials across the U.S. have started loosening restrictions. Some employers are already drafting up plans to ensure that the transition back to the office runs smoothly. While we don’t know what our new normal will look like, it is important for places of business to be proactive in creating a return-to-work plan as we grow nearer to reopening most operations and our return to the office.

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First things first

First and foremost, each return to office plan must comply with applicable government orders and guidance from federal, state, and local officials. As this is an evolving situation, the particulars must be reassessed on a rolling basis. Someone inside the workplace should be responsible for monitoring these regulations and communicating changes to the appropriate parties.

Emphasize employee needs

As a modern business, a focus on understanding each employee’s needs to make a safe and positive transition back to work (whether teams have been working from home or were furloughed) is critical. Consider deploying anonymous surveys to gauge employee concerns and their willingness to return to work. You don’t know what people need if you don’t ask. Take employee suggestions, worries, critiques, and ideas seriously.

Consider the situations of the individuals

Do members of your team now have caretaking obligations during the workday? Those who have children in school or enrolled in childcare facilities might find the reopening of these facilities don’t coincide with the reopening of other businesses. Employers should be prepared to respond to requests from employees who want to continue working from home or take a leave of absence to tend to their children.

Are there workers who are considered at higher risk of contracting COVID-19? The CDC has identified a list of individuals who fit that category. Local health officials have additional guidelines with respect to such employees returning to the office. Think about how your business plans to accommodate any concerns from these individuals. 

Don’t forget to assess employee commutes. Employees might hesitate to return to work if their commute involves public transportation. Will you offer stipends for those workers to take private transportation? Is it better to continue to allow them to perform their job remotely if it’s feasible?

Roll out the return-to-work plan

Decide which employees should return to the office first in your return-to-work plan. Phase employees back to the office slowly, with a priority on those whose work is best done in the office. Depending on the industry in question, staggering shifts is worth looking into. Different departments can swap their in-office shift to every other week, every other day, or take different start times within the same day. If your operations thrive in a remote setting, supporting the goal of flattening the curve by continuing to allow teams to work from home is the safest option.

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Decide which employees are temporarily prohibited from returning 

Those currently experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, those who are still in home isolation due to actual or potential exposure due to COVID-19, and those who have recently traveled outside the state should work remotely for a period of time dictated by their circumstances. Remote options should be an important element of your return-to-work plan.

Develop protocols for your return-to-work plan

Will you be requiring temperature checks or symptom checks? Are you prepared to do so with the proper equipment and personnel? Such checks must be in compliance with your local laws. Will you decide to mandate antibody or COVID-19 testing before staff returns? Where do you stand on ensuring all employees get a COVID-19 vaccine when one becomes available? 

Will you require everyone to wear face coverings? If so, will you provide them? If you decide not to require this, will some employees feel warier about returning to the office? These are essential topics to discuss openly with your teams. Is safety really a top priority for your business? Are you proving that by how you address communications with the employees?

New normals

Enhanced and routine workplace cleaning is now more critical than ever. The CDC has provided guidance on cleaning and disinfection procedures, including cleaning after a sick person enters the workplace. Employers should regularly remind employees about cough and sneeze etiquette and hand hygiene. Keep the workplace stocked with cleaning supplies, tissues, touchless disposal receptacles, and plenty of hand sanitizer. Employees should be discouraged from shaking hands and sharing items, such as headsets.

Workspaces might need to be reconfigured to follow social distancing requirements as part of your return-to-work plan. Common areas like kitchens and break rooms might need to close or staggered breaks might need to be mandated to prevent overcrowding. Things like arranging for food catering or delivery can help minimize the need for employees to frequent other public facilities.

As far as travel goes, develop a temporary travel policy to inform your employees how travel will work when restrictions lighten. Consult the travel health notices posted by the CDC employees returning from high-risk areas. Whether your workers travel for business or take a vacation, those guidelines should dictate whether they need to self-quarantine before returning to the office. 

Encourage employees to conduct video conferences in lieu of in-person meetings. If an in-person meeting is absolutely necessary, be sure it takes place in open and well-ventilated spaces. 

Moving forward under a return-to-work plan

All employees should be aware of how the updates on returning to the office will be communicated to them and who they can go to with questions and feedback about the return-to-work plan. In the meantime, a designated individual on your team should check the websites for the CDC and local or state government officials every day for any changes in guidance. Demonstrate that you are taking reasonable steps to return to normal while also valuing employee safety. Consider regular check-ins with employees to collect actionable feedback.

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