Return to work: A phased approach that really works
COVID-19 has turned the world upside down, and while most companies have enforced work from home policies amidst the crisis, many are starting to think about when they will return to the office and how to go about that transition. Safety should come first when developing a return to work strategy and there are many precautions that employers can take to ensure they are protecting both the physical and mental health of their workforce. Every company and employee are different, so flexibility will be key.
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to returning to work after the pandemic, there are a few key phases employers should implement to help ensure smooth transitions for their employees once public health officials deem it is safe to reopen offices:
Phase 1: Respond & prevent
There is still so much we don’t know about COVID-19 and how it will continue to impact people’s daily lives. Before employers even begin to think about returning to physical workspaces, they first need to analyze reopening guidelines and timelines established by the state and community officials in which they operate and develop a plan to prevent future COVID-19 cases to help keep employees healthy and safe.
Employers should make sure their employees are aware of and have access to symptom checker guides, stress and wellbeing resources and critical health information related to COVID-19 – like locations of local testing areas and pharmacies, as well as and potential telemedicine options. This will encourage employees to take action when it comes to their health and keep them informed in times of crisis. As COVID-19 research, testing and treatments continue to develop, some employers may also consider offering testing or vaccinations as an added benefit.
Everyone responds to crisis differently, so it’s important for employers to make sure these health and wellness materials are delivered in a personalized and appropriate way. Having insight into employees’ social determinants of health – lifestyle or environmental factors including job status, financial security and housing – can help to determine what resources they need.
For example, a person living in the city may need information on the strict precautions they’ll need to take when visiting a grocery store or pharmacy. An older employee may want to be directed to information about the increased COVID-19 risks associated with their age, while someone with children may benefit from stress management resources as they navigate home-schooling. Some employees may also benefit from crisis counseling, financial resources, food assistance or other community resources in their area due to unforeseen implications of the pandemic.
Having insight into factors such as these will enable employers to personalize their outreach strategies to help support the health and wellbeing of their employees during this uncertain time.
Phase 2: Prepare & support change
Work-life will look quite different for a while, so it’s essential that companies support this “new normal” by implementing additional safety measures that make employees feel comfortable and safe going back to work. Offices will have to implement new policies that include increased space between desks, mask requirements, sanitizing stations, regular office cleanings and more. These measures should be put in place and communicated to workers before anyone returns to the office.
Older employees or those with compromised immune systems may need to continue working from home for extended periods of time. Employers should establish accommodation practices and be prepared to provide the appropriate tools and technology needed to effectively work from home as well as appropriate health and safety information when they do decide to return to the office. Employers should also expect more people to work from home on a regular basis in the case that they feel slightly under the weather, are unable to get childcare or need to take care of a loved one who might be sick.
Above all, employers will have to be flexible as they navigate this unusual COVID-19 landscape. They should embrace these changes and make sure their employees know that their health and wellbeing will remain a priority as the company transitions back to the office.
Phase 3: Return to the office
When the time does come to officially welcome employees back, employers need to make them feel protected and comfortable. There should be clear instructions for how and when employees should enter the office to make sure that re-entry runs smoothly. Some offices may have to work at half or limited capacity to maintain social distance measures; in these situations, weekly or monthly schedules may need to be implemented.
If companies have offices in multiple locations, they should keep in mind that every state will have different rules for non-essential businesses. As parts of the country continue to see spikes in new cases, it’s important for employees to evaluate where each office is located to ensure they are not reopening in a peak zone. Employees with offices located in hot spots may not return to work for months after those working in rural areas. In all situations, it is essential to efficiently communicate clear and personalized messages.
A second wave of COVID-19 infections is already rippling across some states, so employers should continue to offer more flexible work from home options for those who may feel unsafe coming into the office if cases do start to increase again. Everyone will need to be prepared for additional social distancing measures, but with more time to prepare, employers can put a concrete strategy in place and make a transition back to remote work more seamless.
In unique times like these, employees need increased support and guidance from their employers. By offering timely resources, helpful health information and preventative services, employers can create stability for their teams and ensure they are prepared to re-enter the office. This three-phase approach will help employers develop a strategy that is personalized for their organization and instill confidence in their ability to return to work safely.