COVID-19 and Returning to the Workplace
By Reagan Nickl
Director of Partner and Customer Success
Sweeping closures caused by COVID-19 went into effect almost overnight around the world. The abrupt change jarred many workers and created obstacles for many companies. Now, data says we’ve passed the peak of the pandemic and it’s likely on the downtrend—provided states remain diligent about social distancing.
Just as many companies settle into remote work and modified operations, they need to turn their attention to COVID-19 and returning to the workplace.
There’s been no “all clear” sign from the government, but it’s not too early to plan a return-to-work strategy. Proactive thought on how to bring employees back into the workplace safely and smoothly will ensure it happens that way. Here’s what to consider as you look toward the future, past the current state of the pandemic.
When can employees return to the workplace?
Every state has a different policy on when and how the economy will open up. Get familiar with your state’s return to work policy—or multiple states if you operate a business across different regions. Non-essential employees can’t return to the workplace before this date, which means you’ll need to keep remote work policies in place until then.
Be sure to read beyond the headline as you confirm your state’s strategy. For example, California has no set date to reopen the economy; however, Governor Gavin Newsom has begun to collaborate with nearby state governors to incrementally reopen in May. Likewise, Missouri’s economy opened May 3 with only social distancing restrictions in place.
Since this is a state (not federal) decision, do your best to keep a close eye on when employees can return to the workplace and in what capacity.
When should employees return to the workplace?
Just because they can return to work doesn’t mean employees should. Employers may choose to keep employees on remote work schedules until further data and guidance on the pandemic become available at the federal level. For example, Massachusetts reopened on May 4; however, Governor Charlie Baker has urged businesses to be cautious and tentative as they bring employees back to work. Massachusetts has the third-highest reported cases of COVID-19 and one of the highest death rates.
Discretion to bring employees back to work rests on employers. In some cases, telecommuting may be a great way to keep operations running and maintain the comfort and confidence of staff still wary about the pandemic. If your business’ cash flow and operations aren’t severely handicapped by remote work, there’s little harm in extending it until the situation becomes clearer.
Adopt policies for reintegrating employees
When the time comes to bring employees back in-house, do it in stages. Much like you eased into remote work, ease employees back into on-site work. Any change to their schedule and work habits can be jarring—even if it’s a return to relative normalcy. Bring employees back in groups and notify groups in advance so they can prepare for the transition. The move back in-house is easier than telecommuting, but it still requires finesse.
Beyond a reintegration to the workplace, get employees back to interacting with the physical space in an appropriate capacity. Emphasize room reservations, workspace usage, and other interactions that get people back into the flow of a normal in-house workday.
Make a decision about remote work
Now’s the time to consider your stance on remote work. Do you allow employees to continue in a remote capacity or do you bring everyone back in-house? Are there tweaks you need to make to your telecommuting policies? The coronavirus pandemic has been a crash course in remote work for many companies—this is your chance to make it part of standard operating procedure.
Look at what works and what doesn’t in your current policy. Then, decide who has the option to keep telecommuting and in what capacity. Maybe it’s only certain staff members or for a set number of hours per week. Regardless, planning from an advantageous perspective can help you establish good practices for the future—a future in which more companies lean on telecommuting policies.
Make returning to the workplace smooth for everyone
Realize that reopening the workplace doesn’t mean going back to business as usual. Coronavirus has forced widespread change in the way we work, but not all of it is bad. The silver lining of this pandemic is that many companies discovered smart, efficient ways to work outside of the norm—ways that employees embrace. As you plot a return to work, figure out what elements of this new work landscape you want to keep and which ones you want to revive.
More than bringing people back to the workplace, now’s the time to modify your operations for the future. For better or for worse, the pandemic shed a light on the need for flexibility. Companies that adopt it won’t find their backs against the wall the next time a major disaster strikes.
Keep reading: COVID-19 Workplace Resources