Last year, as we approached 2020, it seemed everyone was utilizing some wordplay twist to focus on “vision” and “20/20” in their branding. We know very well now just how 2020 has presented unexpected challenges beyond any prior visions – pun intended — for the year. The expression “hindsight is 2020” has become a reality. Even 11 months into the year, we wish a crystal ball could appear to help make the appropriate call of if — and when — to return workers to the office. As we enter what rapidly seems to becoming a second peak of COVID-19 throughout the world and hear the words “dark winter,” many companies are assessing just how to navigate this process.
Leadership in uncertain times like these requires flexibility, empathy and openness.
Since mid-March, we’ve been immersed in our own live social experiment. It’s a reality show nobody ever wanted. Employers previously reluctant or challenged to offer remote work opportunities resisted offering that option due to concerns of lost productivity and collaboration. The pandemic forced the issue. IN the absence of clear evidence of lost productivity or business success, leaders need to remain flexible. Employees may have been completely unfamiliar with Zoom or Teams meetings before, but they are part of the daily fabric of the current work-from-home environment. Some employers wanting to keep a closer eye on the progress of their associates are holding both morning and afternoon Teams calls to keep colleagues apprised of successes and challenges encountered throughout the day.
Empathy is required to recognize the genuine fear employees have regarding a safe return to the workplace. What is being done to protect employees when they return? Are the necessary protocols in place to demonstrate a commitment to health and safety? Keep in mind that employees are concerned about more than just their own welfare and may be bringing those concerns weighing on their minds into the office more than ever before. Do they have elderly parents for whom they are caregivers? What about childcare and school schedules? As the virus numbers increase, some school systems that thought they would be providing ramped up in-school instruction are postponing those plans, reducing them, or adjusting their hybrid model combining virtual and classroom instruction, making it a puzzle with many pieces for parents.
A successful return to work — or not — requires careful examination of the current productivity and effectiveness of the workforce, with attention to flexibility and empathy. Leaders learn the benefit of a adopting a new vision for how work gets done, a willingness to explore mutually acceptable alternatives, and a commitment to open and honest communications with their employees.
Human resources experts have discovered that 77 percent of employers are augmenting their use of digital collaboration and communication tools, while 73 percent believe the remote work environment has expanded the available talent pool. As remote work environments were becoming more prevalent, 69 percent of employers downsized office space. Perhaps because concerted efforts and needed to be made, 68 percent of employers believe communications with their employees during the pandemic have actually improved.
These return-to-work considerations could include:
- Must all employees return to the office?
- Staggered work weeks in and out of the office to reduce occupancy.
- Returning to work in phases
- Offering alternative work schedules, such as compressed workweeks with longer days (four 10-hour days) or working shortened 320-hour workweeks.
- What are the costs to the business of remote work? What savings could be realized with reduced office space?
- What safe measures are in place to protect workers? Does the plan encompass social distancing, one-way halls, cleaning protocols and requirements for masks?
- Consider the wellbeing of high-risk populations, both for employees and guests visiting the business
- Consider the juggling of child-care and commuting concerns
- Prioritize communications
- Create and update clear policies and procedures
- Offer one-on-one discussions with staff to understand their personal concerns and issues with support and involvement from the human resources team
- Prepare in advance to address challenges from associates: “Do I have to come in?”
Once you’ve decided that you’re all-in — or partially so — for a return-to-work plan, consider these stipulations for your checklist:
COVID-19 Back-to-Work Checklist
Returning employees to the workplace during and after the COVID-19 pandemic won’t be as simple as announcing a reopening or return date and carrying on business as usual. Not only will many workplaces be initially altered, some changes may be long-term or permanent renovations and revisions even beyond the intended “finish line” of a widely available vaccine or treatment we’re all awaiting.
The details of each employer’s plan to return will look different. Here 10 key issues most workplaces will need to understand and start preparing for now.
- Workplace safety. Employers have to ensure their workplaces are as safe as they can be. Employees and customers alike may have fears of returning to business as usual. Preparing for and communicating how safety is a top priority will allay fears and increase brand loyalty.
Safety measures could include:
- Implementing employee health screening
- Developing an exposure-response plan that addresses:
- Isolation, containment and contact tracking procedures.
- Stay-at-home requirements.
- Exposure communications to affected staff.
- Providing personal protective equipment (PPE) such as:
- Masks, gloves, face shields, etc.
- Personal hand sanitizer.
- Detailing cleaning procedures and procuring ongoing supplies.
- Establishing physical distancing measures within the workplace:
- Staggered shifts and lunch/rest breaks.
- Rotating weeks in the office and working remotely.
- Moving workstations to increase separation distance.
- Implementing one-way traffic patterns throughout workplace.
- Restricting business travel:
- Start with essential travel only and define what that means for your business.
- Follow government guidance to ease restrictions over time.
- Defining customer and/or visitor contact protocols such as:
- Directing customer traffic through workplace.
- Limiting the number of customers in any area at one time.
- Eliminate handshake greetings, remain 6 feet apart.
- Using video or telephone conferencing instead of in-person client meetings.
- Providing contactless retrieval and delivery of products.
- Understanding and complying with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) record-keeping and reporting obligations:
- Identify positions, if any, with heightened potential for occupational exposure to the coronavirus.
- Review OSHA regulation 29 CFR § 1904 to determine work-relatedness of illnesses.
- Recall procedures. Plan for how and when employees will return to work and create an organized and controlled approach. Planning for all employees to return on the same day at the same time could be overwhelming and possibly unsafe .
Factors to consider include:
- Phasing-in employees returning to work:
- Creating a plan for employees in high-risk categories for infection to return to work:
- Consider allowing these associates to work from home or remain on leave until they feel comfortable to return.
- Determine increased measures to protect them when working onsite, including isolated workstations, additional PPE as requested, fewer days in the office, etc.
- Notifying the state unemployment agency of employees recalled to work. This is a state requirement and will help save on unemployment taxes for those who choose not to return to work.
- Determining how to handle employees unable or unwilling to return to work.
- Employees fearful of returning to work.
- Employees with family obligations that interfere with the ability to return to work.
- Employees under quarantine due to exposure to COVID-19.
- Employee benefits. Whether employees remained on the employer’s benefits plans or not, certain notices or actions may be required to stay compliant. Communicating these changes to employees should be done as soon as possible.
Review issues including:
- Group health insurance
- Eligibility—recalibrate waiting-period issues due to leave or reinstatement; review any revised eligibility requirements during the layoff or furlough and determine if those changes will be revoked and when.
- Ensure coverage changes, such as adding the virtual medical consultations replacing in-person medical appointments, that are now not subject to deductibles, but have been incorporated into the plan.
- If employee premiums were paid during leave, determine how or if the employer will recover those costs from employees.
- Flexible spending accounts
- Review Dependent Care Assistance Program election changes with employees to ensure their new or revised elections are correct.
- Over-the-counter medical products are now allowed under flexible medical accounts on a permanent basis and should be included in plan documents and communications.
- Address new flexible spending account elections and allowable changes with employees.
- 401(k) or other pension plans
- Review eligibility issues due to layoff or furlough.
- Consider any interruption in service issues or counting years of service concerns.
- Review any in-service loans employees may have or will want to take, including eligibility and payback procedures.
- Understand new IRS guidance on hardship withdrawals for employees affected by COVID-19.
- Paid leave
- Review required leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), ensure employees understand the eligibility requirements and provide them with a policy. Create a way to track time used and collect supporting documentation for tax credit purposes.
- Determine if there will be company Paid Time Off/Personal Time Off (PTO) policy changes, including increasing or decreasing paid leave benefits, or additional restrictions in using paid leave.
- Understand the coordination of leave of absence benefits and communicate these to employees as needed.
- Compensation. Many employers may have made compensation changes during the crisis thus far. Others may need to make them in order to reopen. How the disruption has affected compensation policies going forward will also need reviewing and communicating to affected staff.
Things to address include:
- How the employer will handle any missed annual pay increases and if those will be applied retroactively.
- Will any pay cuts be made or revoked? Understand how to reduce salaries for exempt employees if necessary.
- Determine if employee status changes—exempt to nonexempt or full-time to part-time status—are needed to reopen or if those changes already made will continue.
- Bonuses: How will they change, including eligibility for them and their continuation?
- Will hazard pay be offered or revoked?
- Consider a pay equity audit as workers return, as pay may have been reduced or frozen and may have impacted women differently.
- Remote work. Telecommuting may have proven to work well during the pandemic for some employers and employees. Using it not only as a short-term emergency tool to survive the next year and also as a permanent work/life balance and cost-saving measure should be considered.
Actions to consider include:
- Continuing to allow remote work where possible to keep employees safe.
- Staggering in-office weeks and at home work among team members, or part-time remote work on alternate weekdays.
- Responding to employee requests to continue to work from home, including long-term arrangements.
- Updating technology to support virtual workers.
- Consider the long-term cost savings or impact of offering permanent remote work.
- Communications. Establishing a clear communication plan will allow employees and customers to understand how the organization plans to reopen or reestablish business processes.
Topics to cover may include:
- How staying home when sick and physical distancing policies are being used to protect workers and customers.
- Describe what training sessions involving new workplace safety and disinfection protocols have been implemented.
- Have exposure-response communications prepared for any affected employees and customers.
- Have media communications ready to release on topics such as return-to-work timetables, safety protections in place, and how else the company is supporting workers and customers. Prepare to respond to the media if workplace exposures occur.
- New-hire paperwork. Employees returning to work who remained on the payroll would generally not need to complete new paperwork. However, for those separated from employment, such as laid-off workers, it may be best to follow normal hiring procedures.
- Determine employment application and benefit enrollment requirements for rehired workers.
- Decide whether full or adjusted orientation procedures will be utilized.
- Submit new-hire reports for new and rehired workers.
- Notify state unemployment agencies of recalled workers, whether rehired or not.
- Address Form I-9 identification and authorization to work issues
- If completed remotely, complete in person upon return to the workplace.
- Update any expired work authorization documents or note which need updating as soon as the employee receives new documents.
- Determine if you will have employees complete Section 3 of their original I-9 or complete a new I-9 form.
- Policy changes. Employers will likely need to update or create policies to reflect the new normal. Some examples include:
- Paid-leave policies adjusted to reflect regulatory requirements and actual business needs.
- Attendance policies relaxed to encourage sick employees to stay home.
- Time-off request procedures clarified to indicate when time off could be required by the employer when sick employees need to be sent home.
- Flexible scheduling options implemented allowing for compressed workweeks and flexible start and stop times.
- Meal and rest break policies adjusted to stagger times and processes implemented to encourage physical distancing.
- Travel policies updated to reflect essential versus nonessential travel and the impact of domestic or global travel restrictions.
- Telecommuting policies detailed to reflect the type of work that capable of being completed to be done remotely and the procedures for requesting telework.
- Information technology policies revised to reflect remote work hardware, software and support.
- Business continuity plans. Employers learned valuable lessons regarding their business continuity plans — or lack thereof — during the past months. Now is the time to review and revise the plan to prepare for future emergencies.
- Implement a business continuity plan, including infectious disease control, if a plan did not exist prior to the COVID-19 crisis.
- Amend existing plans to include the latest emergency information, such as updates on epidemics and workplace considerations or changes in protocols for responding to global disasters.
- Update plans and contact information to ensure accuracy.
- Establish a pandemic task force to continuously monitor external and internal data and implement appropriate protocols. Recognize the possibility of additional closings during this current pandemic as COVID-19 infections rise and fall, triggering more stay-at-home orders and supply chain disruptions.
- Perform testing and exercises to practice the new or revised emergency plans to make sure employees know what to do and to find any issues that need to be addressed before another emergency situation occurs. Refer to the Society for Human Resource Management’s Vendor Directory: Business Continuity Planning Vendors.
- Unions. Employers with unionized workforces may have additional considerations, including:
- Determining obligations to bargain when implementing changes to mandatory bargaining subjects, including wages and benefits.
- Identifying the need to add a force majeure clause into a collective bargaining agreement to protect the employer from contractual obligations during an event that is beyond the employer’s control.
- Reviewing existing no-strike clauses to ensure continued work during future infectious disease outbreaks.
- Determining obligations for hazard pay under Section 502 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) during “abnormally dangerous conditions.”
Following this checklist will provide smoother sailing for you and your employees as you continue to adapt to the workplace changes necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, help navigate its containment and await an accessible vaccine.
Written by Becky Meister