Returning to Work After the COVID-19 Pandemic: A 6-Step Plan
As regions start to open up again, people will gradually begin to go back to working in their offices. In just a few months, best practices and etiquette have changed. These lifestyle changes not only apply to our personal lives, but to the workplace as well.
Returning to work after COVID-19 may be scary, awkward and jarring. To ease the transition, HR teams will need to make changes to policies, the physical workplace and their approach to employee relations. Follow these six steps to ensure your office is prepared for when employees return post-pandemic.
Failure to prepare for your employees' return can have major physical and financial consequences.
Keeping employees safe, healthy and productive when they come back to work after COVID-19 is key to both their, and your company's, well-being. Download our free checklist to ensure you take all the key preparatory steps described below.
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Upon returning to work after COVID-19, health and safety should be your biggest focus. The first step is ensuring the physical workplace is safe for employees to work in.
First, hire a cleaning service to deep clean the entire office. Their high-grade cleaning solutions will kill more germs than typical products, plus they'll get into every nook and cranny where bacteria and viruses could be hiding.
Ask the cleaners to disinfect both common areas and individual workspaces. This is also the perfect opportunity to shampoo carpets and clean air ducts.
Even if no one has been in your workplace for weeks, a deep clean will put employees' minds at ease and make the office fresh and sparkling for their return.
Next, increase the standards of daily cleaning for your office. Did cleaners just focus on vacuuming and cleaning the bathroom before? Up your contract to include disinfecting work stations nightly and cleaning common areas multiple times throughout the day.
Finally, go through shared cupboards and fridges and throw out any expired consumables. Employees may not have known how long they'd be away from the office, so they may have left food and drinks behind. In addition, ask employees to clean out food stashed in their desks upon returning to work to avoid pests and mold.
After cleaning the workplace, it's important to encourage employees to keep it safe and healthy. When everyone does their part, the whole office will feel more at ease.
Begin by asking managers and the whole HR team to lead by example. "You should hold yourself accountable by washing your hands, sneezing into a tissue/your elbow, [and] practicing good hygiene," says Ken Eulo, founding partner of Smith & Eulo Law Firm. When employees see leaders following best practices, they're more likely to do so, too.
In addition, give employees an extra reminder by hanging posters in common areas. Include information about:
- Cough/sneeze etiquette (into a tissue or elbow)
- Hand washing practices
- Not coming into work when they feel ill
- COVID-19 symptoms (because the virus likely won't be eradicated by the time you return to work)
Lastly, make it easy for employees to follow good hygiene practices by keeping plenty of supplies on hand. Order supplies weeks ahead of returning to work after COVID-19, if possible. Stock up on items such as:
- Disinfectant wipes and/or spray
- Hand sanitizer
- Hand soap
- Paper towels
- Face masks
Keep disinfectant in common areas so employees can wipe down counters, door handles, elevator buttons and appliances after use. Place hand sanitizer around the office, too, for quick disinfecting when employees can't wash their hands.
The coronavirus pandemic has forever changed the way every industry does business. As a result, you'll need to take a look at your current policies and procedures and update them to fit current best practices.
First, update your sick leave policy to include information about COVID-19. Do employees get extra days off if they test positive for the coronavirus? If so, how many? Are you offering leave for employees who live with or care for an infected person?
In the United States, requirements for extra leave are set out in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Learn if your organization needs to comply with the Act (and how to do it) in our free cheat sheet.
Because there could be a second wave of the virus in the winter, "employers need to think of a long-term response plan," says Janette Levey Frisch, an employment law attorney. "Many employers are looking at this pandemic as a sprint. They are, understandably, doing their best to deal with what's in front of them. The problem is that this crisis is shaping up to be a marathon."
To shift your mindset from "sprint" to "marathon," consider policy changes such as indefinite remote work for employees who can do it and more flexible attendance and paid time off.
Next, change your policies about holding meetings. Stuffing too many people into a conference room doesn't comply with social distancing and may make some employees uneasy.
Ask employees to only fill meeting rooms up to half capacity and to hold larger meetings over video conference. This policy change could last a few weeks, apply until there's a COVID-19 vaccine or be reinstated every flu/virus season.
If possible, consider also changing the layout of the office to give each employee more space. Rearranging work stations to separate them can help reduce the spread of germs. Workplaces that are short on space could convert meeting rooms into offices for one or two employees. Even a temporary change in layout can work wonders in putting employees' minds at ease.
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.
According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, "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. You could also set up a mental health support group for employees to share their feelings and stories.
Lastly, incorporate mental health leave into your paid time off policies. Either designate a specific number of days employees can take off for mental wellness, or include them in allotted sick days. You wouldn't want an employee to come to work with a physical illness, so let them stay home when they're feeling mentally unwell, too.
After a few months of working remotely, employees have likely fallen into a home office routine. However, going back to commuting, earlier alarms and having less flexible work hours might feel jarring.
Dealing with reluctance to give up remote working will be one of the biggest challenges for HR teams. To ease the transition:
- Be flexible with work hours for the first few weeks
- Provide employees with a list of productivity resources to get them back to their routine
- If their job allows it, let employees work remotely for longer
- Offer to add a few remote work days each week to an employee's contract
A major goal of returning to work after COVID-19 is to get employees back to work with as little interruption as possible. To accomplish this, make the office feel as normal as possible.
For example, ensure employees have all the equipment and supplies they'll need to get right to work on their first day back. Keep up with workplace rituals if it's safe to do so (e.g. signing birthday cards, dress-up/costume traditions, choosing an employee of the month).
Finally take inventory of equipment coming back into the office, such as laptops, monitors, chairs, docking stations and headsets. This key step does two things. First, it ensures that employees have everything they need to do their job. It also reduces the risk of employee theft.
After so much time apart, socializing can go one of two ways for employees. Some might feel awkward, like they're meeting their coworkers for the first time all over again. Others might have missed their colleagues so much that they'll risk their health and productivity to catch up.
One option to encourage social interaction while keeping employees safe is to bring them back to the office in stages. You could do this by:
- Last name
- Birth month
- Time served/seniority
With fewer people in the office, employees can spread out to keep their distance while still returning to a more "normal" work routine.
While employees may have connected via online platforms during the remote work period, they may hesitate to keep it up once they return to the office.
"The different environment caused us to interact in ways we did not before. It just emphasizes the importance of being fresh and individualized in our communications," says attorney Bill Nolan. In addition, he explains, "many people [are] sharing more of themselves than they ever did before. The shared focus and fear brings us together."
Keep up that open communication and cross-department bonding by setting up special interest groups within the office. Foodies can share their latest creations or favorite restaurants on a special Slack channel. Sports fans can get together to cheer on their team at a post-work happy hour.
HR teams could even send out an employee survey about hobbies and interests. Then, match everyone with a buddy from a different department who shares their interests. Not only will employees make new friends outside of their team, but this practice can boost cross-department communications for business operations, too.
Most importantly, be flexible with employees as they reconnect. Give them time during the workday to celebrate returning to work after COVID-19, as well as catch up on personal and professional topics. As everyone gets back into "work mode," the chattiness will subside.
Returning to Work After COVID-19
"Employers who had built a reservoir of trust and responsiveness and openness have held their own if they are an industry where that was possible," Nolan says. "If they didn't, they haven't."
Flexibility, honest communication and adherence to best practices will help ease the transition as employees adapt to the "new normal" back at the office.