The return to work is top-of-mind for many organisations and employees across the world as government shutdown restrictions slowly lift. However, the transition back to the workplace may not be a simple one. Organisations will need to prepare for the various complexities associated with this transitional period and ensure they are addressing the needs of employees while supporting business continuity.
Return to work planning is a priority for many organisations as they cautiously readjust to a post-pandemic world of work. An estimated 2.7 billion people, or more than four out of five workers in the global workforce, have been affected by lockdowns and stay-at-home measures. While some industries will be transitioning their employees back to the workplace within the coming months, others, such as travel and tourism expect a much slower return back to business.
Managing the complexities of the return to work post-COVID-19
Some countries are further along in containing the spread of the pandemic than others. Organisations will need to customise their return to work plans to align with governmental restrictions in their region, and for global businesses operating across borders, this means rolling out region-specific plans. There’s also the possibility of a “second-wave” of the pandemic, which requires organisations to be prepared with re-exit plans.
Adding to the complexity is the fact that the workforce has rapidly shifting needs as they adapt to a new normal in both their personal and work lives. The landscape of work has completely transformed and now businesses are under additional pressure to proactively protect the health and safety of employees while driving engagement to deliver business results. Organisations need to adopt a holistic return to work plan that extends beyond check-box measures such as providing personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitising workstations.
Considerations for your organisation’s return to work plan
According to Gartner, HR’s role in an organisation’s return to work plan is to advocate for health and safety while deciding when and who to return, and what the experience will be like. How employers treat their workforce during this time will reflect how employees perceive their employer today and in the long term, impacting retention. By taking a proactive approach to prepare the workforce for the transition, organisations can better prepare for threats to continued business operations.
The UK government has encouraged people who cannot perform their jobs from home to return to work and has also provided a list of guidelines to help organisations establish a “COVID-secure” environment. However, there’s no one-size-fits-all roadmap for getting back into the workplace. Employers will need to create a plan that works for their organisation and adjust as needed. Here is a checklist of items organisations can consider implementing to support a more seamless transition back to the workplace.
Before the return to work
Consider a partial return to the workplace: Identify roles in which employees will be able to remain productive in a remote work arrangement and roles that are more easily done in the physical workplace.
Allow return to work to be optional: Some employees may be unwilling or unable to return to the workplace. Organisations can deploy a remote work survey to better understand how employees feel about the transition back into the workplace. Where practical, companies may need to extend work from home policies to accommodate various requests.
Consolidate workforce data into one system: Organisations that are leaders of change management and excel at business continuity during uncertain times leverage a single system for all workforce data including payroll, workforce management, compensation, and performance to gain an intelligent overview of their workforce. This type of technology will help organisations gain better insight needed to determine how their people are impacting revenue, profitability, and productivity.
Communicate changes and keep employees informed: Organisations can educate employees about the steps they can take to protect themselves both at work and at home. This may include personal hygiene practices and educating employees to follow any new policies or procedures related to illness, cleaning and disinfecting, and guidelines around work meetings and travel. The Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI) has developed a COVID-19 Workplace Actions campaign to help encourage the right behaviours to limit the spread of the virus in the workplace. The campaign includes communication materials such as posters and signs to place around workplaces as well as guidance for employers on executing social distancing plans. Organisations will need to consider how they will communicate this information, especially to employees that are working on-site. If employees have limited access to desktop computers, consider disseminating information via mobile communications. Employers will also need to communicate the risks of returning to the workplace and keep employees informed day-to-day.
Ensure you have enough PPE for the entire workforce: All employees – whether essential or non-essential – should feel safe and comfortable performing their job. Organisations can provide hand sanitiser, masks, tissues, gloves, and disinfectant wipes to employees.
Prepare the workplace to reduce physical contact between employees: This means adapting office space to support distancing. Here are a few actions employers can consider:
- Allow for space between desks or workstations
- Assess and/or improve the building ventilation system to ensure better filtration of air
- Establish in-person meeting guidelines. The WHO advises that the following questions be asked before holding meetings in confined spaces:
- Is a face-to-face meeting needed or could it be replaced with a video conference?
- Could the meeting be scaled down to fewer people?
- Are there enough supplies and PPE in the meeting area such as tissues, hand sanitiser, and face masks?
Implement extra precautions for essential workers: Protecting all employees is a priority, however, organisations will need to design a separate plan for essential workers. Consider moving these employees to areas in the workplace that don’t receive a lot of foot traffic and prepare a back-up plan for employees who may fall ill during the return to work roll-out.
Restrict common areas: Consider restricting access to conference rooms, cafeterias, break rooms, and other areas where employees could congregate; this may include taping off water coolers, refrigerators, microwaves, and other high-touch appliances.
Prepare signage: Communicate proper hygiene practices and workplace guidelines (such as no visitors and room closures) across the workplace.
Conduct a thorough cleaning of the office.
Update leave policies: Policies should be adapted to address employees who are showing symptoms. Here are a few policies employers can put in place:
- Employees who have symptoms should notify their supervisor and stay home
- Ensure policies around sick leave are flexible and consistent with public health guidance
- Employers should not require a COVID-19 test result or a doctor’s certificate for employees who are sick to validate their illness, qualify for sick leave, or to return to work. From a practical perspective, GP and medical facilities may be extremely busy and not able to provide such documentation in a timely manner. Employees who are well but who have a sick family member at home with COVID-19 should notify their supervisor and ensure a full recovery before the return to work.
Update technology readiness plans: With a mass shift to remote work, many companies are anticipating they’ll continue work from home arrangements going forward. In fact, a Gartner survey of 317 CFOs and finance leaders revealed that 74% will move at least 5% of their previously on-site workforce to permanently remote positions post-COVID-19. Companies should understand the infrastructure required to limit risk during transitional periods, as well as for employees who will require ongoing technical support as they continue to work from home.
During the transition back to the workplace
Remind employees about company policies: This includes the restriction of visitor access, including employees from other locations and virtual employees.
Set guidelines around employee self-monitoring: Employees should be encouraged to conduct daily assessments to monitor potential symptoms and reduce the spread across the workforce.
Separate sick employees: Employees who appear to show symptoms of COVID-19 should immediately be separated from other employees, customers, and visitors, and sent home. Have a procedure in place for the safe transport of an employee who becomes sick while at work. The employee may need to be transported home or to a medical facility or hospital.
Offer incentives to use alternative forms of transportation: Encourage employees to opt for transportation methods that minimise close contact on public transit. This can include offering reimbursement for parking or single-occupancy ride shares. Consider allowing employees to shift their work schedules to avoid travelling during busy times. For employees that use a shared vehicle to travel to work sites, the UK government advises regular cleaning to be done between shifts or when handing over the vehicle to the next occupants.
Implement flexible scheduling: Allow employees the flexibility they need to address personal matters. Flexible scheduling approaches, such as being able to take two hours during the workday to go to an appointment or care for a child, will help employees better manage stress.
Identify and respond to potential flight risks: During this transitional period, employees will have various needs and expectations that have changed over the last few months and will continue to shift as they adjust to a new reality. Organisations can leverage predictive workforce analytics to identify potential flight risks and build proactive action plans.
Support employee mental health and well-being: Employers must understand how employees are coping throughout every phase of the pandemic. This transitional period back to the office may be more difficult for some than others. Organisations will need to consider how employees’ lives – both work and personal – have also been impacted and the factors that may cause added stress during this time. Some employees may be stressed about the use of public transport, while others will be concerned with finding childcare.
The return to work will be a difficult shift for many employees, both in their work and personal lives, which means employers should be providing resources and support to address varying needs. Offering employee assistance programs (EAPs), extending benefits to include mental well-being, and providing community resources will help employees cope with the adjustment. Keep in mind that employees may need additional social, behavioural, and other services to help them manage stress and cope with uncertainty.
Accommodate remote employees: As organisations prepare their workforce to return to the physical workplace, they must not forget about those that will continue to work remotely – both those on a temporary or permanent basis. Teams became familiar with connecting to their team members online, so it’s important that managers and leaders are still encouraging these types of communications. Planning happy hours and celebrating team accomplishments can go a long way in keeping employees connected whether they’re working from home or in the workplace.
Continue a routine of daily and weekly workplace cleaning. Consider extra precautions in common areas such as the kitchen and washrooms.
After the roll-out of the return to work plan
Measure the effectiveness of the return to work transition: Organisations should allow employees to provide honest feedback about how they perceive things were handled during and after the crisis and incorporate that input moving forward. The world of work today is much different than it was just a few months ago. Employees will have different needs and concerns as they reintegrate back into the workplace. Connect with employees to find out if they are able to work productively, and if any of the accommodation measures need adjustment.
Also, identify gaps and adapt return to work plans as well as organisation-wide business continuity plans to prepare for a potential “second-wave” of the pandemic or another crisis that may occur in the future. For example, if engagement has declined, what were the driving factors behind this change? Leveraging employee feedback technology will help keep a continual pulse on how employees are feeling and any underlying causes that may have a larger impact on the business.
Develop a “re-exit” plan: To prepare for potential threats such as a resurgence of COVID-19, organisations should create a plan around exiting the workforce for a second time. This level of disruption can have detrimental effects on the workforce as they’re readjusting to uncertain environments and may suffer from further stress and anxiety. Communicating the plan for a potential re-exit will provide the workforce with greater visibility and reassurance.
Preparing employees for a new world of work
The pandemic has transformed the world of work for organisations across the world. Business leaders have realised that a vital part of business continuity is providing an employee-centric experience. To deliver on this and keep employees front and center during the transition back to the workplace, organisations will need to have the right technology in place to centralise workforce data and insights and maintain up-to-date information that organisations can access when needed.
Productivity improves by 20-25% in organisations with connected employees. In particular, mobile technology is a key part of supporting a connected experience, particularly with an increasingly dispersed and distributed workforce. Managers can more easily collaborate and communicate with employees, while employees can easily switch shifts, see upcoming schedules, communicate leave requests, and quickly receive feedback and messages from their managers. Leveraging mobile technology can also support learning on the go, for example healthcare workers or food services associates working on the floor.
Innovative human capital management technology can equip organisations in a number of ways by helping build an employee-centric experience. As well, this technology can help protect the health and safety of the workforce and support business continuity by monitoring the spread of COVID-19 across the workforce.