Are You Ready for Return to Work Challenges?

Business leaders are facing one of the most complex and uncomfortable challenges we’ve seen in decades. Not only have organizations needed to navigate the pandemic, the resulting closures, and the economic aftermath, now they need to think about how to resume operations while keeping their teams safe. 


Safeteams_return to work_safe return to work plan


Most companies did their best to adapt over the past year. They found new ways of working that left their offices, facilities, and stores virtually empty. They (rightfully) placed employee health and safety over profits, but now they face difficult decisions about returning to work. As economic turmoil continues to mount, only one of five CFOs surveyed by PwC said that they thought their organizations could resume “business as usual” in the span of one month if the entire crisis ended today. That outlook doesn’t exactly speak to confidence in the market! 


We all know return-to-work won’t be straightforward. As the vaccination roll-out continues and governments lift regulations, management teams will bear the responsibility for guiding their companies through this next phase. These leaders need to tackle the complicated task of determining how and when to return to the workplace. 


The reality is that COVID-19 has likely changed the future of work


The ways we used to do business might seem uncomfortable, unsafe, or impractical to employees. Returning to work is certainly not as simple as letting staff know they’re expected back in the office. Managers need to address these questions: 

  • What are the factors we need to consider when asking employees to return to the workplace?

  • How do we reintegrate employees into the workplace in the most effective and efficient manner? 

Keep reading to learn some of the key areas that forward-thinking business leaders will explore in order to facilitate a successful return to work. 

3 Key Questions You Must Ask Now

Bringing employees back to work is a complicated process with many different elements that need to be considered. Fortunately, it’s not necessary to reinvent the wheel. 

Check out the best practices outlined in this Return to Work Playbook. This will give you an idea of items that should at least be considered across a wide variety of topics. You can get started with your plan by asking yourself a few questions. 


1. How do we coordinate return-to-work efforts and who should be involved?

The truth is that bringing employees back to work requires a well-planned and detail-oriented process. Your plan will affect almost all departments and functions within the business. 

Key managers from HR, labor relations, IT, facilities management, office management, PR and Communications, and C-level representatives should all have a voice. Consider looping all of these individuals into a project or steering committee tasked with creating a return-to-work plan. 

The goal should be to look at all of your current business practices from multiple perspectives and then advise on how best to adapt to them. Your return-to-work task force will ultimately determine corporate policy decisions on anything related to resuming operations at the workplace. 


2. What happens once our employees return to work? 

It is important to remember that workplaces and workers have both evolved since March 2020. You should look to answer these questions:

  • How have work schedules been affected, and do you need to make changes to work duties? 

  • How do those changes affect employee roles and status? Are there adjustments in pay or hours required? 

  • Will any of your changes trigger revisions in bonuses, incentive pay, or even benefits? 

Take the time to think through all situations and decisions before committing to any changes. The best way to understand how things will go after employees return to work is to map out several likely scenarios before they come back at all. 

3. Can an employee refuse to return to work? 

Not every employee will have equal concerns about returning to work. Some employees may be in a high-risk category, while others may be concerned about exposure in the workplace. 

Anticipate these concerns and develop protocols for addressing them in advance. 

A few questions to consider would be:

  • What options are available to accommodate workers who are hesitant to return to work? 

  • Can employees decide when they would return to work? 

  • How will management respond to leave requests? 

Employees may have concerns around any of the following: 

  • Child, dependent, or senior care conflicts

  • They, or a member of their household, belong to a vulnerable population

  • A reduction in public transportation, removal of carpool, or other logistical factors

  • Other circumstances unique to an individual 

Remember that the pandemic has resulted in significant mental health impacts, so it’s important to be sensitive to the needs of your workforce. Make sure that as you discuss plans affecting your staff, you are striking a balance between the safety and well-being of employees and the operational needs of your organization. 

On a broader level, company-led vaccination efforts will come into play as well. As such, you should encourage staff to get vaccinated. With a significant percentage of the workforce fully vaccinated, employees should feel more comfortable returning to work. 

Key Factors to Consider in your Return-to-Work Plan

Any comprehensive return-to-work plan will cover several fundamentals. Make sure you’ve addressed these in your strategy.

1. Have we put safety first? 

The health and safety of your workforce should be management’s top priority. From a moral, ethical, and legal standpoint, employees’ well-being is important. 

Also, consider that no return-to-work program will be successful if your employees feel uncomfortable. Your employees are counting on you to get them back to work safely. They expect compliance with federal, state, and local orders, even as restrictions are eased.

Executives need to plan for a large variety of scenarios in order to properly address varying regulations or circumstances.

Once physical spaces are open, management teams need to have tangible plans to keep those spaces safe. Spend some time mulling over the following:

  • What are the protocols for deep cleaning and sanitation? 

  • Does the layout of the space need to be changed? 

  • Do employee schedules need to be adjusted so that there are fewer people around each other? 

  • What guidelines will you put in place for personal protective equipment like masks, and what processes will you use for governing self-health checks or sick time if people are unwell? 

You can likely assuage employee concerns by leveraging an automated contact tracing solution. Such a solution would allow you to extract contact/interaction reports for any infected individual. This way, you can quickly make decisions on who should be tested, quarantined, or isolated. 

2. Who Needs to be back on-site, and when?

Your return to work plan might involve recalling furloughed employees, transitioning away from remote work, or ramping up towards full operational productivity. For many organizations, it could involve all of those elements. 

The most important thing is developing strategies based on who really needs to be physically in the office or on the factory floor, and understanding when it is safe and practical for their return. 

Who are those “mission-critical” employees? Some roles that have historically been viewed as requiring face-to-face interaction are evolving. Other roles truly depend on onsite tools, technology, or processes that can’t be used effectively elsewhere. 

Start by looking at which roles transitioned smoothly to remote working and which ones were a struggle. Additionally, pulling data on performance can help. If you can see where there was a drop-off in productivity when staff went remote, you can understand which roles are perhaps better suited for in-person work. Your goal is to reduce onsite headcount in order to lessen the risk to employee health, while also gaining operational excellence.

3. What do employees need to manage the changes? 


As we mentioned earlier, even the best-laid plans will fail without employee buy-in. We recommend that managers lead with empathy. It’s important to demonstrate that you understand that while everyone has experienced this crisis, they haven’t experienced it in the same way. For example, some individuals might have health risks that make them reluctant to return to the office. Others may have caregiving responsibilities that are difficult to balance with in-person work. 

Be sensitive above all else. 

While taking a sensitive approach, recognize that workforces will need time to adapt (again). Employees might be dealing with changed schedules or adjusted workspaces. They most likely will deal with a mindset shift if they had adjusted to working remotely. There are a plethora of modifications to navigate, and it’s essential that employees understand exactly what’s being asked of them. Alongside that information, business leaders should continue to explain what’s being done to protect employee health. 

Re-acclimating to onsite workspaces will present a huge change management opportunity for executives. A strong communication strategy that helps employees to navigate these changes is crucial - as well as further communications to those who will continue to work remotely. Overall, every employee should understand (and hopefully embrace) a shared vision of what comes next for the company. 

Logistically, companies should work with HR and legal teams to prepare for a potential uptick in ethics or compliance complaints, sick leave policy questions, etc. Providing staff with a chance to make their concerns known will help identify potential problems before they begin. Establish actual, two-way communication in order to not only navigate the return-to-work changes but also to strengthen overall corporate culture and increase employee engagement and loyalty in the long term. 

We understand that as you work through return-to-work issues related to COVID-19, each new step likely presents more questions. For an in-depth plan on successful return-to-work, download this playbook.

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