After the COVID-19 outbreak forced millions of office doors to close, employers around the country are starting to welcome their employees back to on-premise work.
However, it’s not as simple as welcoming back employees after a holiday break. With the coronavirus still very much a risk, and a second wave a possibility, employers need to take drastic steps to prepare their offices and employees for their return.
Understandably, this is a time of uncertainty and heightened anxiety for your employees. They may be nervous about returning to work and have a lot of questions around what the “new normal” will look like in your workplace. Here are some tips for preparing employees to return to the workplace:
Hold an open discussion through a town hall or Q&A session.
While the abrupt nature of office closures was out of your control, the manner in which you re-open isn’t. Make sure you are giving your employees plenty of time to prepare for their office return by holding a town hall session weeks in advance of your anticipated opening. This gives them ample time to make child care arrangements and figure out other aspects of their post-COVID routine.
Just as importantly, it gives people the opportunity to ask questions or voice concerns. Many of your employees might still be grappling with fear of infection and will likely have many questions about how the organization plans on keeping them safe.
It may be helpful to send a survey ahead of the meeting to gauge your employees’ level of comfort with returning to work and their concerns. Make sure to give people the option to submit anonymously so there’s no hesitation in sharing honest thoughts.
Thoroughly research federal, state, and local guidelines -- and share them with your employees.
Before reopening, take the time to research the federal, state, and local guidelines that apply to your organization. For example, some states have limited the capacity levels of workplaces and require workstations to be six feet apart. Additionally, OSHA, the CDC, and local governments have released detailed guidance for business reopening.
All guidance should be worked into your organization’s reopening plan, and thoroughly communicated to your employees. It’s essential to maintain transparency about what the COVID workplace will look like so employees can adjust and ask questions.
Communicate all the action you are taking.
It’s not enough to present your employees with a reopening plan and not speak of the matter again. There should be a continuous stream of communication via email, texts, and phone or video calls to keep employees up to date on where your team is within the reopening plan.
Communication is extremely important in this situation as circumstances and guidance seem to update daily. You may even have to deal with employees being reluctant to come back to work, so it’s up to you as an employer to give them confidence that you have their best interest at heart. While each organization’s action plan will look a little different, a survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers showed some common themes in action:
- 58% of organizations plan to change work schedules to reduce exposure
- 73% of organizations plan to reconfigure their workspace to promote social distancing.
- 28% of organizations plan to introduce contact tracing.
Provide hand sanitizer and masks for employees, even if it’s not mandated.
In some areas, hand sanitizing stations and masks are required for all employees and visitors. If that’s the case, plan to go above and beyond the required number to be sure there is plenty on hand. Even if it’s not required, taking this extra step will ensure your employees that safety is the top priority. As an additional layer of safety, you can implement temperature checks as employees enter the workplace for the day. And of course, encourage all employees to take time off to get tested if they have been exposed or are experiencing any symptoms.
Just as adjusting to the pandemic situation was difficult, adjusting back into a more normal routine will be difficult too. Many of your employees have families to care for, yet they do not know what the situation will look like in the coming months. Others may be suffering financial setbacks brought on by a job loss in the family. Others may be medically at risk and would feel that it’s in their best interest to continue working from home.
It will also be important to balance the need to get back to face-to-face interactions while keeping teams productive and successful. Ensure that all the proper guidelines are being followed and protocols are in place so employees feel comfortable having any necessary interactions.
Employers should set an intention to be flexible with work schedules and locations, and communicate their intention to employees before they return to work.
Note: this is also a great opportunity to start a conversation around Flexible Spending Accounts with your employees, or Dependent Care Accounts to help manage changing child/family care costs.
Up the ante on your mental health benefits, starting now.
It’s no secret that the last few months have been mentally and emotionally difficult. People with existing mental health conditions have experienced a spike in symptoms from the anxiety and isolation the pandemic caused. And, an entirely new group of people have found themselves faced with mental health situations for the first time, with very limited access to resources.
Now is the time to reintroduce your mental health benefits to your employees. In doing so, take a moment to evaluate your mental health coverage. Does it include virtual appointments? Are medications covered? If you do not feel that your mental health coverage is adequate, consider new options -- your employees will need them now more than ever.
It’s also important to make sure HR staff are able to administer the benefit program remotely. You’ll want to make sure all employees are able to enroll and manage their benefits online.
The most important thing you can do to prepare employees for returning to work is take your time. There’s no need to rush your reopening plan and risk making a decision that could put employees in harm’s way or make them uncomfortable. Keep the lines of communication open for feedback, stay up to date on all CDC guidelines, and your reopening will be smooth and safe.