Gartner Research

Decision Principles for the Return to the Workplace: 5 Companies Share Their Judgment Calls

Published: 18 June 2020


Functional leaders from a variety of industries offer a look at how they think about why, when and how to reopen. They discuss collaborating with industry peers, reaching executive consensus, pulse surveys and pilot projects—and how they use their findings.

With little relevant precedent from past pandemics — and with a web of inconsistent guidance from government officials — every company will need to rely on its own judgment about reopening offices and restarting production lines. Decisions about when and how to move forward, and who should do what, require a team of teams. The CEO, the board, HR, legal, the CFO, IT, real estate and enterprise risk management (ERM) are among the functions working together to make these important choices (Figure 1). The business continuity management office also plays a role at firms that have such a program.

Figure 1. A Cross-Functional Group of Decision Makers

Executives from four functions at five companies in three sectors — manufacturing, technology and banking — told us in interviews how they moved beyond compliance to find the best way forward for their own business and for employees.

They told us how they gathered input and put that information to use by:

  • Reaching consensus with others in their industry and internal partners within the enterprise

  • Gathering employee feedback through surveys, informal communication channels and pilot projects

  • Applying these findings to make tradeoffs between employee trust and business needs and to communicate decisions

Just because the government says the country is open for business from tomorrow and restrictions are eased, we shouldn’t rush back in,” Stephen Higgins, director of worldwide real estate at Lenovo Group Limited, said. “The vast majority of job types, job roles in an office environment, can now absolutely be done remotely.”

But if it’s business-critical to return workers to facilities in short order, business leaders should all be on the same page about when and how. “Where we’ve been very successful is when a site leader, HR, legal and real estate are all aligned and come up with a timetable for that particular location,” Higgins told us.

Automotive manufacturer Magna International Inc. has reopened the majority of its facilities around the world and they are running at various capacities. To prepare, the company participated in an industry group’s initiative to reach a consensus on common standards. The project helped Magna’s HR and medical teams confidently create a “Smart Start” playbook.

The peer enterprises reached “a collective meeting of minds” on six areas for the playbook, Steve Roper, Magna’s global director of occupational health, safety and environmental, said.

“From there,” Roper said, “each individual company could fill in its own specific details on restart protocols.”

Magna’s team took care to strike a balance between the global playbook and varying local requirements. The group shared every component, policy or program with a regional lead — in Europe as well as in Asia. As at Lenovo, decision making “wasn’t done in isolation,” Roper told us.

The project team holds daily COVID calls with various global department heads to exchange information, such as employee feedback and new regulations that may affect reopening in certain jurisdictions. These frequent communications across Magna’s businesses are “extremely helpful...they become a vehicle for updating the playbook,” Bea Lozinski, VP of talent, total rewards and people management, said.

Coordinating this effort was not easy. The Magna team had to work fast to have a global document ready for the communications department, and to prepare various management teams as well as individual employees.

A strong tone at the top enabled the speed and success of the rollout for new protocols. Magna’s CEO and top leaders sent out weekly messages to the organization, Lozinksi said, as well as hosting management calls and global webcasts to keep employees informed.

Employees have a variety of preferences, of course, but the majority want flexibility to return to the office when it’s best for their personal circumstances (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Employee Preferences for Returning to Work

It’s important to dig deeper into the thinking of your own workforce to inform trade-offs and decisions about how to execute your return effectively. For instance, do certain employee segments think they’re productive working remotely? What kind of help do they need? How do workers feel about privacy issues when it comes to screening procedures? Companies are checking sentiment through formal and informal means and learning through small-scale experiments.

A global bank executive we spoke to has been pushing out a regular staff survey since week two of the lockdown; one part asked what workers deem necessary for returning on-site. The company’s return-to-work decision makers collect that data and consider feasibility of requests. The bank started with daily surveys but cut back to once a week to avoid overloading employees with requests.

This bank is asking its business leaders to plan for 15%-20% occupancy and gives them discretion to determine who should return and how. That metric (as opposed to the percentage of the total employee population) gives latitude to local leaders based on individual criteria like childcare, elder care, commuting and employee willingness to return, in addition to business needs.

Before Goodyear Tire Management Company reopened its offices in Shanghai, executives heard that some employees were eager to return because they lived with their families in small apartments, Damien Schrobilten, VP of HR Asia/Pacific explained.

Recognizing that each situation is different, Goodyear offered flexible work hours to avoid rush hour and even allowed them to stay home. “We empowered them and trusted them to do what was best for them and the company,” Schrobilten said.

The outbreak caused Goldwind, a Chinese wind turbine manufacturer, to shut down in January. The workplace began opening, gradually, starting in mid-February. It began with a pilot involving two or three volunteers per department who could easily travel to the Beijing campus without relying on public transportation. The experience of this small group of employees gave the company a sense of how the office would function before the rest of the workforce returned.

Executives we interviewed told us how they considered the kinds of trade-offs needed to transform workspaces and welcome employees back.

They stressed that they want employees to feel comfortable and informed about returning because many fear the unknown.

The fix could be simple. Goodyear offered returning employees daily PPE packs that included hand sanitizer, gloves and a face mask (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Goodyear’s PPE Supplies

Goldwind’s chief transformation officer, Pan Guangchong, said “it’s psychological more than physical considerations sometimes.”

To help people follow physical distancing rules, the company erected barriers in the office’s open space and the cafeteria, and asked employees to sit next to an unoccupied seat in the conference room. Strict procedures, some mandated by the government, required wearing masks, getting temperature checks and lengthy reporting of whether they or those of contacts have any symptoms every day.

Figure 4. Goldwind’s Temperature Checks

Magna uses a centralized response management team to cascade training and communications to individual plant managers. That way, local leaders can talk to their employees more personally about the measures the company is taking to keep them safe.

The company’s corporate communications and marketing made sure there was a consistent theme running through posters, signage and leveraged digital tools like an employee app to make it easier to follow guidance and integrate a daily screening process (Figure 5). “There was a very much mindful whole process,” Roper told us.

Figure 5. Sample Signage From Magna

Some choices ultimately came down to “a cost-benefit analysis based on management’s findings and employee desires,” said the bank executive we spoke to.

For instance, you might want to get machines that passively scan body temperature and offer employees more privacy than public testing using thermometers, but they’re scarce and costly. Whether you decide to pursue this equipment should depend on what your workforce values and what you can afford.

When Goldwind reopened, it kept the cafeteria open, because of the lack of other food options nearby. Yet the company decided to close gyms, ping pong rooms and other communal areas as a precaution, because those are nice to have, but not essential. It plans to gradually reopen the other spaces once it adjusts to a new normal. Even after COVID-19 conditions normalized in China, employees at Goldwind still needed to wear face masks at all times and go through temperature checks upon entering the campus and each building.

Those who have brought employees back to the workplace say that move is not the end. You should learn from regions where you have reopened and apply the lessons elsewhere. As the pandemic continues, re-closing offices remains a possibility. Even if companies avoid multiple openings/closings, they should still treat this as an iterative and adaptive process.

Magna’s “Smart Start” playbook is a prime example. The team has been working on it since March, yet “I still wouldn’t say it’s done,” Roper said. Constant revisions and fine-tuning maintain a dynamic document as the pandemic takes the company — and the world — through new twists and turns.

by Steve Shapiro, Peter Young and Dian Zhang

Contact Steve with questions or comments.

Recommended by the Authors

Use the guidance and templates to build a framework for a reopening-the-workplace playbook that supports cross-functional planning initiatives.

Track updates from authorities to offer flexible protection to those who can’t work remotely and to clarify standards people under quarantines must meet before returning. Also, reinforce that discrimination against those who might have had the virus is unacceptable.

This selection of research will help executive leaders improve remote work operations, orchestrate the return to the office, and optimize future remote work strategies.



Enterprise Risk Management Research Team

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