Many organizations are beginning to plan for a partial or full return to the workplace. Others, especially those providing essential services, already have been operating in person. Deciding who returns, why, when and how is a complex decision. It must take into consideration the organization's business imperatives. Continuity depends on producing or providing products and services. Employee needs, preferences, and concerns (both practical and psychological) are also critical. So are community expectations and attitudes. Organizations must address a variety of operational, logistical, and regulatory challenges. They must ensure basic safety and hygiene and care for infected employees. They may need to rearrange space, schedules, and whether employees work at home or in-person. They may be considering or required to implement a vaccine and testing mandate. The possibility of new variants, surges and requirements makes the situation dynamic. The pandemic – and the uncertainty – are with us still, and they will be for some time to come. Stay flexible, nimble, and on guard.
KEEP IN MIND
Create a flexible plan to meet changing needs and a dynamic situation.
Start by clarifying what “getting back to business” means. There are many questions to consider. Is onsite, face-to-face interaction or travel necessary – and for which functions and employees? Will employees have the option of remote or hybrid work? What about employees who can’t or won’t return? Or those who are already working onsite but who do not want to be vaccinated? What will be expected of employees who work onsite or in close contact with other employees or clients (e.g., proof of vaccination)? Are you considering or rolling out a vaccine mandate, either on your own or under government requirements?
How will you protect everyone’s safety and well-being? How will you continue to encourage vaccinations, communicate new policies, and support employees? How might your choices affect contractors, vendors, volunteers, customers and clients? How will you measure success strategically, financially, and operationally? If you are already working in-person, how will plans change now that everyone is eligible to be vaccinated?
The transition back to the workplace will affect many parts of the organization. Consider whom you need to involve in the planning, both across and outside the organization. Track employee feedback as your plans unfold. And communicate!
Listen to employee concerns.
Many employees may not be enthusiastic about a rapid or full return to the workplace. Find out how your employees feel about resuming work partly or completely in person. Consider conducting a survey. Ask about workplace issues like safety and comfort being close to people who may not be vaccinated. Also ask about personal issues (e.g., remote work/support, commuting, childcare/school). Employees may feel anxious about changes to their lifestyles and flexibility. They may feel more productive working from home and worry about new performance expectations. They may lack trust in your organization’s ability to manage the transition well. They may also want to know about potential vaccine mandates and implications. These issues may be more likely to come up in individual or small-group conversations.
You also may need to make decisions and policies before understanding employee attitudes fully. It's important to track employee feedback as your plans unfold.
Navigating a Return to the Workplace
As you “get back to business,” human resource and organizational leaders need to stay vigilant and nimble. Prepare to help your employees navigate challenges and change.
Reinforce positive changes to organizational culture
Organizational culture is built on shared purpose, values and norms. It is the glue that holds employees together and gets things done. It’s also slow to change. The pandemic has disrupted every organization's culture. Zoom lunches and happy hours cannot replace the interactions that build trust and relationships.
Even so, positive changes did emerge from the pandemic. These include greater flexibility, agility, cross-functional collaboration, and empathy. Communications became more transparent. Many organizations revisited and reinforced their purpose and values. Now is a good time to let go of old, less-productive ways of getting things done. Examples include big bureaucracies, too many meetings, and slow decision making. As you move forward, talk to your employees about the changes worth keeping. Hold inclusive, small group conversations. Use the insights to adapt human resource policies and build and deepen trust.
Pay serious, ongoing attention to employee mental health.
Experts warn about a shadow mental health pandemic from accumulated stress and anxiety. Everyone’s life has changed. People have lost loved ones. Families have lost jobs and/or income. Depression, substance abuse, and suicides are up. Existing inequities and tensions may have worsened, especially for communities that feel marginalized. Unfortunately, the stress, like the pandemic, is not over yet. More uncertainty and changes, which trigger stress, are inevitable. There may be new disease variants and surges. Health and safety requirements may shift. Vaccine mandates may become the norm. And we are likely to see conflicting information and misinformation.
Employees may be negotiating many personal challenges. These could include reduced family incomes, vaccinating their children, and variable school schedules, including closures when infections occur. They may lack access to childcare or elder care, medical care, and transportation. Returning to the workplace adds new anxieties about social interactions and performance expectations. Even what to wear is a concern. These are serious issues. You may need to offer more flexible policies and psychosocial resources and support.
Be prepared to rearrange your space.
Limit potential exposure to Covid-19. Not all employees may be vaccinated. And as we have learned from breakthrough infections of the Delta variant, even vaccinated people may spread Covid-19. Make sure that employees can maintain social distance. Consider mandating hygiene practices such as mask wearing and using protective barriers such as plexiglass to separate employees from one another in close quarters and from customers. You may want to limit access to community areas, such as elevators, break rooms and conference rooms. Set aside private spaces for temperature or Covid-19 testing. You might also choose people to track safety compliance. They can gently remind employees about proper procedures while they are learning to change their behavior.
Double down on health and safety.
Continue to stress personal responsibility and hygiene. This includes getting vaccinated and staying home, if ill. It may also include wearing masks and social distancing, depending on your business or location. Establish protocols for employees who have Covid-19 symptoms or positive test results. Set up systems to track Covid-19 tests, temperature checks, or vaccinations, if required. For proof of vaccination, you can accept self reports or a photo of the vaccination card, (but be aware of the reported increase in fake vaccination cards.) Provide (and pay for) any Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that your employees need. Make sure to follow proper procedures to protect employees' personal information.
Prepare for the transition and stagger it, if possible.
Offer employees clear options. It's likely that some remote work is here to stay. Continue to support working from home for those who prefer it or are at high risk of a serious infection. Consider bringing employees back in phases. The order may be based on business priorities and/or those at lowest risk. This will give you – and them – time to adjust.
Identify policies that need to change to support the transition. These might include flexible leave, flexible hours, child care credits and expanded PTO. Plan to track changing employee attitudes and needs. Also watch government regulations, local conditions, and evolving community norms about vaccine mandates. Make sure managers are well versed on transition plans. Train and support them so they can engage employees and respond to their concerns.
Communicate evolving changes in clear, transparent and timely ways.
Explain new policies and changes to how business will be done. Be clear about what you hope to achieve. Describe how you will support returning and remote employees. Outline feedback mechanisms, including how to register questions, concerns and complaints. Remind employees that information will continue to change about scientific developments and variants. Regulations at the federal, state, and local levels are also likely to change. Provide regular updates from credible sources.
Survey employees on how they are feeling about the transition and how the organization is doing. The survey could be done formally or informally.
Tie updates to the concerns employees have expressed in surveys or conversations. Show how they apply to your policies, procedures, and wellness programs. Continue to stress the importance of, and your organization’s support for, getting vaccinated. Pay attention to your employees’ diverse backgrounds and needs when developing communications.
There is a lot we still do not know about Covid-19, including its evolution. Track credible public health and scientific resources like the WHO, the CDC, the FDA, and the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Reassess and communicate the risks related to disease variants, surges, and boosters. Share information on new Covid-19 vaccines, treatments and tools (e.g., home test kits). Many employees may also appreciate resources on vaccines for children, as they are approved for different ages.
Identify the community services and resources your employees may need to return to the workplace. Is public transportation fully restored? Are schools, child-care facilities, and after-school or vacation programs “back to normal” ? Are programs and services for elderly family members operating? Where are Covid-19 tests available, as employees may need to be tested to return to the office or after workplace or community exposures. Be mindful of employees who may have limited or unequal access to critical services and resources. Consider what accommodations you may need to make.
Do unions represent your employees? Consult with them in advance before issuing new requirements, like a vaccine mandate.
Legal and regulatory issues
Track federal sources including OSHA (which provides guidelines for federal mandates), CMS, CDC, EEOC, and NLRB, especially if you are considering a vaccine mandate. Expanded leave is also covered in The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), and the Family Emergency Medical Leave Act (FMLA). State and local governments have different requirements for mandates, capacity, mask-wearing, social distancing, testing, and vaccines.
Employees may have concerns about resuming work-related travel. Clarify what is essential travel. Provide information on the health and safety protocols of hotels and airlines. Follow vaccine mandates imposed by countries and airlines. Watch for trends in vaccine passports, which would regulate access to places and activities. Adapt your expectations and policies accordingly.
The decisions you make about returning to the workplace could affect your reputation. Many groups may care about your choices: employees, customers or the people you serve, partners, vendors, volunteers. The community and other organizations are stakeholders too. Provide clear and consistent messages about the reasons for your decisions. Describe how you are ensuring and monitoring employee and community safety. Draw on credible guidelines from the CDC and other community and industry organizations.