Return-to-Workplace Guide for HR Leaders

December 13, 2020

Contributor: Jackie Wiles

HR’s role in the organization’s return-to-workplace debate is to advocate for health and safety while deciding when and who to return, and what the experience will be like.

Every organization has unique scenarios for returning employees to the workplace as the phases of the COVID-19 pandemic unfold, but HR’s role is constant: To advocate for the health and safety of employees — and, in turn, for the consumers and other stakeholders with whom they come in contact.

“It’s clear that the challenge of returning to the workplace isn’t just an operations challenge; it’s a human challenge,” says Caroline Walsh, VP, Team Manager, Gartner. “As organizations try to reopen their physical locations and get back to some form of ‘normal,’ leaders have to collaborate to promote health and safety in and for the workplace.”

It isn’t enough just to establish safety measures; employees must actually feel safe

For the chief human resources officer (CHRO) and other HR leaders engaged in return-to-workplace decisions, the focus on employee health, welfare and safety requires flexibility and empathy — and a willingness to regroup and retrace back-to-work decisions as circumstances change.

Download Guide: Return-to-Workplace Playbook for HR Leaders

When to return?

  • First, make sure you have a “re-exit” plan. Employees need to feel confident that you have a plan should a new surge in coronavirus infections occur. Make clear what the triggers and responses will be — and predicate those plans on a continual (re)evaluation of different workplace scenarios.
  • Be certain employees will feel safe. It isn’t enough just to establish safety measures; employees must actually feel safe. Be transparent and specific about your plans so employees understand the measures and perceive them to be safe. Commit to training on specific safety measures if required.
  • Wait until your employees are ready. If employees are unwilling or unable to return to the workplace, don’t force them. Gather data to assess employee sentiment and comfort about returning — and continue to monitor employee engagement and comfort once they do return. Adjust the reentry plan if needed. Use employee feedback as a trigger for re-exit if employees start to feel unsafe.

Read more: 10 Questions for an HR Pandemic Plan

Who returns first?

  • Sequence the return by segment. Some organizations have already formally segmented employees according to their roles, activities and skill sets — and their ability to work remotely. Add insights from recent experience with remote work to determine which segments have been able to adjust quickly and remain productive remotely. Then sequence the return accordingly — but be flexible to employee needs.
  • Decide based on the work, not the worker. At organizations where employees are remaining productive remotely, require managers to make the business case for returning them to an on-site location. Be flexible; well-informed guidelines rather than rigid mandates will ease stress on employees.

What’s required in the new workplace?

  • Employee experience and safety come first. It isn’t only humane to make sure employees feel safe and supported, it’s critical to business continuity and success. Create new “employee journey maps” to effectively manage the return-to-workplace experience. Identify and manage the moments that matter most to employees upon reentry into the workplace, such as their first day back and their first team meeting.
  • Communicate candidly about the risks. The perception of safety is as important as safety itself. Be as transparent as possible with employees about any changes in the risk of transmission. Consider a simple communication tool such as a green/yellow/red rating to communicate the risk of exposure to coronavirus at a given facility on a given day.
  • Acknowledge the non-work stress on employees. Employee experience extends beyond a physical location. Employees may still find it hard to commute, secure childcare and manage the continued disruptions in their daily lives. These stresses will reduce their productivity at work. Learn from the way personal and work lives have blurred during the pandemic. Invite employees to share specifics of their situation and equip managers to respond. Create consistent messaging around coping strategies.

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