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Plan the Return: The Post-COVID-19 Guide to Employees Rejoining the Workplace

Authors: Tracy L. Hall, MBCP & Daniel Poucher

In response to immense pressure on local, state, and federal government officials to reopen the economy, companies are faced with creating plans to open offices in the safest way possible. As employers try to grasp what some semblance of ‘normal’ may look like moving forward, they must now begin to map the return of their employees to the workplace and consider the associated challenges. The concerns that still exist around COVID-19 may lead to understandable hesitation to re-enter the workplace, but there are some strategies that employers can incorporate into their plans to provide a cautious, thoughtful, and safe transition back.

Communication and Education

Diligent, enterprise-wide communication and education regarding the organization’s plan to reopen offices is critical. Organizations must regain the trust of employees by emphasizing that safety is a critical concern of executives and senior management. Management should stay current on mandates and suggestions by federal, state, and local governments and health agencies, and incorporate them into their strategies.

All 50 states and territories have enacted state or public health emergencies. State acts and funds appropriation have been widely allocated to enhance state and local public health department capabilities. As COVID-19 responses specific to individual states evolve, organizations’ reopening strategies must depend on the infection rate in their local areas. Specific areas within states have different numbers of infected people and may not be able to reopen at the same rate. This, coupled with ever-changing guidelines, may make it difficult to follow statewide orders.

Companies must continue to understand and educate their employees on how certain regulations, such as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and Families First Coronavirus Act, can provide support and aid. They must also continue to monitor any new mandates that will affect employees going forward.

It’s important to communicate current and accurate information, and to organize company strategy accordingly. Changes in company policies and procedures must be carefully communicated to employees prior to implementation. Companies should create “reopening” documentation and disseminate it to all employees. Training webinars and videos can help communicate important details, and signage throughout the office can be useful in reminding employees of critical instructions (and may be required by state governments). Communication to customers should be timely and align with employee notification to ensure both employee and customer expectations are in sync.

It’s imperative to ensure communication is delivered in a positive manner in line with company culture.  Organizations must remember that not all employees share the same opinion of the new guidelines, and some will receive the mandates negatively. Employers must communicate new requirements with an emphasis on employee safety, and must not allow for exceptions to the new rules.

Employee Safety Considerations

Employee safety should be your number one priority when devising plans for re-entry. Office reconfigurations, hygiene, the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), and cleaning practices should be considered in all plans for operating an environment under the “new normal.”

Office reconfigurations to allow for proper social distancing should be in compliance with state mandates and could include:

  • Limiting the number of employees in the office at one time
    • Employees who can or must continue to work from home should be accommodated if necessary
    • Organizations might use survey tools to gauge employee availability and comfort level for returning to the office
    • Employees in high-risk groups or over the age of 60 should remain at home
  • Spacing between cubicles (for instance, having every other cubicle occupied)
  • Partitions between cubicles that can’t be properly distanced

Companies need to consider protocols for use of high-traffic spaces or common areas such as lobbies, conjoining hallways, or elevators. Companies may be required to enforce capacity limits or other protocols, such as:

  • Limiting the number of individuals allowed in:
    • Common areas (such as copy rooms and conference rooms)
    • Elevators
    • Restrooms
    • Kitchens/breakrooms
  • Encouraging employees to continue conducting virtual meetings, even when some might be in the office
  • Establishing traffic routes in hallways
  • Putting social distancing markers on floor space near common space or high traffic areas
  • Limiting shared office space equipment
  • Implementing cleaning protocols before and after use of office equipment
  • Considering whether it’s possible to open windows to increase air flow

Basic hygiene reminders should be distributed and posted for employees. These practices should include:

  • Encouraging frequent handwashing for at least 20 seconds, and ensuring handwashing stations are available throughout the office
  • Providing hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes
  • Encouraging employees to wipe down shared equipment, desks, phones, and other shared surfaces
  • Requiring proper use of face coverings/masks
  • Requiring employees to stay home if ill, and report any symptoms of illness to Human Resources

If screening measures are implemented, ensure proper communication around these practices for those needing to comply. Employers may also implement contact tracing mechanisms or request employees keep track of anyone they come in contact with (in case a report of illness occurs).

Additional cleaning protocols may assist in minimizing the spread of germs, and employers might need to increase the frequency of cleaning. Organizations should work closely with building management (if the space is rented) to fully understand the additional strategies being used by cleaning companies.

Operational Adjustments

Some individuals have worked their entire career from an office and were quickly forced to work from home. As employees begin to refill vacant space, operational practices may have been either strained or relaxed due to work-from-home policies. Employers should consider the impact of these adjustments on employees, and ensure the re-acclimation to the office is as flexible as possible. Employers need to monitor employee stress levels and consider mental health issues as a result of the crisis. Directing employees to tools, such as Employee Assistance Programs, and other services available can help with stress and anxiety issues resulting from the situation. 

It may be necessary to incorporate or continue flex schedules due to new illness reports or childcare issues as a result of closed schools, camps, and daycares. As the world returns to normal, companies should embrace what the future workplace will look like. Moving forward, the workplace may be a combination of both physical and virtual settings. Enhanced collaboration tools and additional hardware can support this new office reality. Organizations are urged to follow legal authority over employees having concerns about re-entering.

Travel Considerations

Employers should consider what percentage of their employees rely on public transportation to commute to and from work. This can effect which employees the organization selects to return to the office. Additionally, employers may face challenges if employees are uncomfortable utilizing public transportation methods.

Corporate sales activities, external meetings, and industry conferences will revamp employee travel. Companies should consider, and communicate to employees, the strategy when returning from company-sponsored travel. These considerations may include:

  • Urging employees returning from travel to work from home for at least 14 days to adhere to quarantine guidance
  • If employees returning from travel must work at the office, consider sectioning a part of the office to limit possible transmission of COVID-19 to other employees
  • Continuing to monitor the guidance provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and continually checking information issued by state and local agencies to update plans and communications

Companies must coordinate what stage of their strategy to reauthorize employee travel based on guidelines, restrictions, and comfort level.  

Conclusion

While COVID-19 has caused many negative short-term effects, employers should be strategic with their plans and coordinate initiatives to have positive long-term effects. An effective roadmap to return, which includes increased considerations for employee safety, can strengthen corporate culture while respecting the boundaries and concerns of an organization’s employees.