Organizations across the globe are struggling with a difficult decision: when and how to return to workplaces in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike other disasters such as an extreme weather event or IT outage, a global health pandemic does not have a definitive “end” that signals that it’s safe for businesses to start resuming normal operations.
CEOs planning to reintegrate back into their regular business premises need a plan that maintains safety, manages resources and rebuilds morale. Below are 5 essential considerations to ensure a successful transition back to work.
1.Manage employee numbers
Large volumes of employees returning to a shared workplace represents a huge risk for the spreading and contracting of viruses. Managing the number of workers will be critical to protecting workplace health. The higher the number, the higher the risk. When it comes to COVID-19, it really is a numbers game.
Plan a staggered reintroduction to the office. Establish a process such that a rotating group of employees work from the office every few days. Create these groups across functional lines, both to ensure coverage across roles and to support employee distancing. Resist the temptation to open the doors to everyone on the same day – the risk isn’t worth the grand gesture.
Restricting employee numbers in this way will create a greater need for shift coverage. Beyond healthcare and similar essential services, this will also affect call centers, frontline retail, manufacturing and other industries.
2.Maintain remote working
Despite the availability of regular workplaces, it’s prudent for businesses to continue some form of remote working for several months (at least). The reasons for this are financial and practical.
Rolling lockdowns and exits may continue for some time in regions where the threat of COVID-19 remains high. Seesawing back and forth between central and remote working states is hugely disruptive, but minimized by a workforce accustomed to and practicing it throughout.
Many organizations will elect to keep staff working from home for economic reasons. Others may have a return to remote working forced upon them if a staff member suddenly contracts the virus. This reinforces the importance of an effective communications platform to connect with employees working from home.
3.Rethink physical setup
Reopening of workplaces won’t entirely remove all restrictions imposed during COVID-19. Businesses will still need to observe regulations governing social distancing, employee gatherings and hygiene practices. It’s likely that pre-virus working environments are unsuited to these new restrictions.
Businesses will need to be proactive in reconfiguring their office spaces. The requirement for 6 feet between employees impacts on individual seating arrangements and shared spaces like cafeterias.
4.Rebuild workplace morale
The human component of returning to office life requires as much focus as the practical one. For staff who have been away from their workplaces for weeks or months, returning will feel unsettling. Much may have changed in the interim. Some of their old teammates may not be returning at all.
Successful businesses thrive on motivated workforces, so it’s important leaders invest efforts to rebuild workplace morale. Acknowledge any employee concerns and dispiritedness and treat announcements regarding the new operating environment with sensitivity.
5.Support Employees’ Mental Health
Self-isolation and quarantining during the pandemic may have affected your employees’ mental health. HR teams should be aware of the potential effects and have resources ready to help.
“People placed in quarantine or self-isolation may experience a wide range of feelings, including fear, anger, sadness, irritability, guilt or confusion. They may find it hard to sleep.” The pandemic may also increase feelings of stress, anxiety or depression.
Inform managers of these mental health effects and ask them to monitor their employees. Leftover effects from isolation plus trying to get back to a regular work routine can be tough, so it’s important to know how to spot employees who are struggling.
Gather mental health resources (e.g. mental health hotlines, local treatment centers, therapists covered by benefits) and share them via a company-wide email.
Below we’ve deconstructed detailed examples of the six risk-mitigation responses that companies might need to put in place.