An HR Manager’s Guide to Planning a Return to the Office
Here’s how to prepare a safe return to the office, and address your employees’ questions and concerns.
If unprecedented was 2020’s most overused word, uncertainty was surely number 2. And while we’ve learned that nothing is really unprecedented, uncertainty remains — especially for small business owners and HR professionals, who are wondering when to bring employees back to work and how, exactly, to go about it.
As vaccinations pick up speed and cases decline, the much-talked-about return to work feels close and tangible in a way it hasn’t previously. But as state and local governments are giving the green light to get back to the office, it’s up to HR to ensure the transition is made safely.
Here’s what HR professionals need to know.
Read more: 64% of Unvaccinated Employees Don’t Intend on Getting a Shot, Plus Other Return to Work Insights from SMBs
Is your office even ready for employees to return to work?
Determining when to return to the office is no simple matter, especially since employers and employees have different opinions on the subject. Calling employees back to a physical workspace prematurely could result in a subsequent closure — and degrade employee trust in the process. On the other side of the spectrum, businesses that have suffered through remote work for the last year aren’t eager to delay the return any longer.
Fortunately, HR professionals don’t have to make this decision alone, or without guidance. Instead, look to 3 pillars of information to guide your decision: the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), and your employees.
The CDC’s web page Returning to Work outlines considerations for returning to work and highlights how employees can protect themselves and others. Visit this OSHA page for information on what workers need to know about preventing COVID in the workplace, and the roles of employers and employees in responding to COVID.
If your business or workplace is ready to meet the safety precautions and has prepared the modifications outlined by these resources, you’ll also want to get a sense of employee sentiment. Conduct a return-to-work survey of employees to better understand personal needs and potential concerns. If workers are scared and hesitant, that’s important information to guide your decision, too.
Help employees mentally and emotionally return to the office
Offer a flexible timeline
At Postali, a Columbus-based marketing agency, Chief of Staff Jenna Saponaro is offering an at-your-own-pace return to the office — and not just to limit headcount, but to recognize the personal, emotional, and familial components and challenges of a return to work.
Postali created an Office Return document that outlines the plan to transition from 100% remote work back to in-person, in-office work beginning June 2021. “[In the doc] We acknowledged that we expect team members to go through an adjustment period and have allotted a 3-month grace period for them to truly dictate what their return to the office will look like.”
See Workest’s return-to-work template here.
Saponaro said she anticipates most employees being fully back in the office or on a hybrid workplace schedule by September. “This allows employees to organize transportation and childcare needs, plus it accommodates the mental transition that will likely occur,” she said.
Talk to employees, one-on-one
Encourage managers to dedicate time, like a focused 1:1, to the return to work in order to gauge where employees are at. By understanding your concerns, you’ll be better able to address their situation.
Tal Shelef, relator and cofounder of Toronto-based real estate agency Condo Wizard, said touching base with his employees was the best way he could support them.
“I wanted to talk about what they needed, and most of them voiced their concerns,” Shelef said. “Almost half of them wanted to continue working remotely, while the other half wanted to return.” Shelef opted for a hybrid model to allow employees the flexibility to work as they’d like.
Consider allowing pets in the office
As anyone with a canine knows, your dog had the best year ever. But on top of the stressors of returning to the office, pet owners are worried about the effect their going back to work will have on their four-legged friend.
To ease the transition, online retailer Best Price Nutrition decided to allow pets in the workplace.
“I think one thing people liked about the past year of lockdowns was getting to spend more time at home with their pets, so we’ve decided to allow employees to bring their well-behaved pets to the office,” said digital marketing lead John Frigo.
Frigo noted that it’s a win-win for pet owners and pet-less employees alike. “I think pets have a calming effect, and everyone really seems to enjoy having them here.”
Petting a dog has been shown to reduce cortisol levels, the hormone responsible for stress, and pet companionship is a powerful counter against depression.
Research aggregated by John Hopkins backs this up: petting a dog has been shown to reduce cortisol levels, the hormone responsible for stress, and pet companionship is a powerful counter against depression. For businesses looking to ease the transition for employees and provide additional emotional support, consider allowing well-trained and friendly pets in the office.
Flexible paid sick policy
For workforces with limited paid sick time, the fear of testing positive for COVID-19 comes with potential repercussions for their livelihood. Darrell Rosenstein, founder of The Rosenstein Group, a recruiting and executive search firm, said they’ve taken all the public health safety measures recommended by the CDC, but have also debuted a communicable disease policy that includes flexible paid sick leave.
“The policy acts as a guide for managing everything from paid sick leaves to what employees can do when they get sick to managing reduced staffing levels,” he said.
HR leaders should consider putting into place a flexible paid sick policy that offers employees additional paid time off if they do get sick. This may put employees, who would otherwise worry about the repercussions of getting sick, at ease.
Have a clear plan to bring workers back to the office
Nothing will strike dread into the hearts of your employees faster than a vague email about coming back to the office. Rather, work with your business leaders to develop and articulate a clear, thoughtful, and detailed return-to-work plan to highlight your company’s preparedness.
Work with your business leaders to develop and articulate a clear, thoughtful, and detailed return-to-work plan to highlight your company’s preparedness.
How to bring employees back
Going from full-time remote work to full-time office work would be a jarring and difficult transition for anyone. While some business owners may be eager to get their team back to on-site work, compassion and patience are needed as we readjust to office work.
1. “Take-your-time” approach
Consider offering employees flexibility on their return to the office, like the example of Postali, above. At Postali, Chief of People Jenna Saponaro has decided on a 3-month phased approach to bringing employees back to work. Eager-to-return employees may return to the office in June, with the hope that most employees will be back in the physical office setting, or working a hybrid model, by September.
2. Staged return
A staged return to work may work better for your company. Organizations could start by dividing employees under the age of 60 who are not at increased risk for serious illness into 2 cohorts.
Ask Cohort 1 to return to the office on Mondays and Wednesdays, and cohort 2 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Continue to allow both cohorts to work remotely on Fridays. Maintain this arrangement for a minimum of a month before incorporating other employees over the age of 60.
By dividing employees into groups, you limit the number of individuals in the workplace at one time — something we’ve learned is critical to preventing and reducing the transmission of COVID-19. And bringing back healthy employees under age 60 on a limited schedule first allows the employees to readjust to in-person work and offers HR and leadership a chance to ensure new policies and procedures are working.
3. Hybrid for life
A March 2021 survey by Harvard Business School found that 81% of professionals who worked remotely in the past year would prefer not to go back to the office at all, or to have a hybrid schedule going forward — a stat that’s unsurprising. Read any workplace blog or chat with your coworkers and it’s clear that almost no one wants to go back to the office full time.
If it’s feasible for your company to offer employees a hybrid schedule in perpetuity, why not do so? Your organization will benefit from employees who feel heard and supported by their employer, not to mention the increased productivity employees report when working from home.
To mandate vaccines, or not?
While employers can require proof of vaccines before returning to work, this is generally inadvisable.
Encouraging and incentivizing employees to get vaccinated, running educational campaigns, and even hosting on-site vaccination, if possible, in lieu of requiring the vaccination are preferred options. Here’s why.
Employers with mandated vaccination policies still must comply with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the American Disabilities Act, among other workplace laws as dictated by the EEOC. Therefore employees cannot just say “everyone must get vaccinated, period,” because there may be individuals requesting an exemption.
Here’s where things get tricky. “The problem is that if an employee says no [to getting vaccinated] because of one of the reasons above, employers find themselves in a back-and-forth discussing that employee’s religion or medical conditions,” said Damien Weinstein, founding partner of Weinstein + Klein, an employment and business law firm in New York and New Jersey. “That’s REALLY dangerous and fertile grounds for a lawsuit,” he added.
Weinstein said that means employees may end up having to defend how religious they are, while those requesting exemption due to medical reasons may be asked to provide documentation. “No employer wants to deal with that — from both a practical and legal perspective,” Weinstein said.
In lieu of requiring vaccines, employers could:
- Offer to pay for vaccines
- Run virtual education campaigns
- Offer paid time off for vaccination and potential side effects and be eligible for a tax credit, recently announced by President Joe Biden
Have a communication + exit strategy in place
You’ll want to ensure you’re communicating regularly with employees. Share updates with them via email or in Slack channels, during meetings, and in one-on-ones with managers.
“With our office return plan, we followed our overall approach to communication, which is to be transparent and proactive.”
Saponaro said at Postali they’ve had success sticking to their usual communication philosophy. “With our office return plan, we followed our overall approach to communication, which is to be transparent and proactive,” she said. Postali notified employees in their weekly all-hands meeting, shared the link in their shared database in their Slack channel, and encouraged employees to ask questions or share concerns with their manager, HR team members, or CEO. “It’s gone very smoothly,” Saponaro said.
In addition to sharing with employees a clear plan as to how you’re going to bring employees back, you’ll also want to be communicating about the precautions the business is taking, and what will happen if a coworkers who has been in the office tests positive for COVID.
Prepare the office
It’s important to consider public health safety measures offered by the CDC as you plan your return to work. Be sure to communicate these new processes, policies, and procedures to employees before reopening.
Ventilation and filtration
The CDC recommends paying special attention to ventilation and filtration, since we know now that COVID-19 is spread predominantly through respiratory droplets suspended in the air. Many companies will invest in new ventilation or air filtration systems, like HEPA air filters, but the costs can be burdensome, especially for small businesses. If that’s the case, keep in mind that opening windows and doors and using fans is helpful, too.
According to current CDC guidelines, employers can stick with routine cleaning as opposed to disinfection: “When no people with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 are known to have been in a space, cleaning once a day is usually enough to sufficiently remove virus that may be on surfaces and help maintain a healthy facility.”
While we’ve become accustomed to “deep cleanings” and sanitizing everything from our hands to our groceries, the CDC guidance now says we can “stop the hygiene theater,” meaning that these measures don’t do much to stop the transmission of the virus. That’s because of growing certitude that COVID-19 is an airborne disease. In other words, it doesn’t spread most commonly or easily by surfaces or objects, as once thought, but by respiratory droplets suspended in the air.
The CDC says cleaning more frequently or choosing to disinfect may be wise if your workplace is at an increased risk for infection from touching surfaces, like in the following cases:
- High transmission of COVID-19 in your community
- Low number of people wearing masks
- Infrequent hand hygiene, or
- The space is occupied by certain populations, such as people at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19
Think about seating arrangements
Arrange seating and desks with respect to social distancing guidelines. OSHA recommends demarcating the floor in 6-feet increments to encourage safe distances. And since face-to-face contact should be avoided where possible, consider desktop protection screens to maintain adequate protection.
Recalculate meeting room capacity
Use a free online tool like meetings.com’s room capacity calculator to recalculate meeting room capacity in order to accommodate social distancing. The tool allows you to input the number of people or square footage of a room and informs you how much space you need or how many people can safely fit in a room.
Determine kitchen and food guidelines
Keep kitchens safe with regular cleanings and one-way entrances and exits. Stagger break times and encourage employees to bring food from home. Shared sources for refilling beverages have the potential to spread germs easily, so request that employees wash their reusable bottles and mugs prior to refilling.
If you’re a company with a cafeteria, limit payment to contactless options and ensure food is pre-packaged — think individual sandwiches and salads over buffet-style eggplant parm.
Front office preparations
- Post signs in the parking lot and entrances reminding employees and visitors of some best practices, like wearing a cloth face covering, practicing social distancing, and staying home when sick.
- Remind employees of proper hand hygiene, COVID-19 symptoms, and the importance of wearing a face covering with posters placed throughout the offices. Be sure to ensure these reminders are accessible for non-English speakers, too!
- In areas where employees formerly congregated — like shared common spaces, kitchens, and outdoor seating areas — post reminders to maintain social distancing for any small-group activity.
- Ask employees to wash hands or use hand sanitizer throughout the day. Set up sanitizer stations at all entrances and exits, in the kitchen, hallways, and throughout the shared space.
- Temperature checks are a way to reduce the possibility of transmission of COVID-19 in your workplace, but do not eliminate the threat. Requiring temperature checks is legal, according to the EEOC, but employers should keep in mind that employees can be infected with COVID-19 and be completely asymptomatic, so it’s important to ask employees to self-screen as well.
How to keep common areas safe (like the lobby)
- Keep lobbies safe with one-way entrances and exits, hand sanitizer, and posters reminding employees to wear cloth face coverings.
- Ask all employees and visitors entering the building to fill out a COVID-19 self-screening form. The city of Fresno, CA has a helpful template you can find here.
- Additionally, businesses may consider using a HIPPA-compliant health app like Health Champion to provide contactless screenings that make the process quick and easy.
Communication is the key to success
“The last thing you want is radio silence on the issue, and suddenly employees are hit with a request to return to the office ASAP.”
Employees don’t hate change, they hate poorly managed change. Communicate your businesses’ return-to-work strategy to both employees and managers well in advance of the return date. Ask managers to again share this information with team members in one-on-ones and at the beginning of meetings. “The last thing you want is radio silence on the issue, and suddenly employees are hit with a request to return to the office ASAP,” said Janelle Owens, HR Director of Test Prep Insight, an online education company. Rather be open and honest about plans and communicate frequently.
Employers are wise to provide as much notice as possible, so employees can make arrangements for elder or childcare, as well as ready themselves for this transition. To foster an open dialogue, remind employees of an open-door policy in all email and communications. Let them know they can come to their manager, HR team, or leadership with any and all questions and concerns about the transition back to the office.
Make sure employees feel heard
Going back to the office will be an adjustment for all. It’s likely employees will be concerned about safety but also feel some anxiety around being in a social environment for the first time in more than a year. HR leaders can inspire confidence and put employees at ease by preparing a safe return to the office. Look to the CDC and OSHA for guidance on the specific measures you need to take and the new policies you should be implementing. But, perhaps most importantly, make sure employees feel heard. Let team members know that they’re always welcome to share concerns or ask questions of their managers, HR team, and leadership. Remember that the best way to address employee concerns is to listen.
Have any advice? Share it with our community by becoming a member (it’s free) and post on our Q&A forum.