By Andrea Lebron - May 7, 2020
Businesses across the globe have shifted from remote work planning to back-to-work planning. There are several key elements needed for successful back-to-work planning for your organization and they will mainly focus on providing a safe and healthy environment by gathering critical information from employees and sharing it across the enterprise.
The biggest fear most businesses and really communities across the United States have is opening too soon. The reality is that the unpredictability of coronavirus is too big to ignore. History shows us that a second wave of COVID-19 is very likely to happen as did with the Spanish flu in 1918. HR managers and health and safety leaders are left with more questions than answers.
Returning to work will almost certainly happen in waves, driven by consumer demand and employer desperation, said Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.
“For some things demand will snap back immediately,” said Gordon. “Those jobs — dentists, health care, barber shops — there’s a backlog of demand. Then there’s a similar category, like restaurants and bars, where people may be cooped up for so long that they’re desperate to go out to eat or get a drink. For other industries, the same urgency may not exist.”
While we don’t know all the answers or how to reopen offices the “right” way just yet, there are a few elements we do know that will be critical for back-to-work planning and they all center on ensuring your employees’ wellbeing.
When you think about it from an HR perspective, employee wellbeing as it relates to COVID-19 back-to-work planning covers:
Gauging your employees’ concerns including returning back to work or remaining remote, if applicable
Being transparent by maintaining consistent communication
Providing safeguards for the evolving workplace environment
Giving employees a way to provide feedback
Checking in on employees as the situation progresses
Here are a few things to consider as you begin your back-to-work planning.
As you decide on when to officially open buildings back up for workers to return, there are few things to keep in mind as part of your Phase One checklist.
Start with your employees. Consider sending out an employee survey to get a feel for how your employees feel about returning to work. Here’s a free return-to-work survey template to use. Their responses might give you better insight into how and when you should reopen.
Prepare the physical workplace to be welcoming, but safe. Wayfinding will be essential for offices with returning employees and should be welcoming and simple to follow. We’ve already experienced some of this in supermarkets and other indoor facilities where social distancing isn’t possible.
Keep in mind that it might be overwhelming for employees to return to their workplace in the new normal. Not being able to go their usual route to the kitchen area might not seem like much but could cause some confusion and frustration. Make sure you communicate these new routes before they arrive to the office.
Revise employee handbooks with a coronavirus return-to-work policy. This could vary depending on your industry. For example, food manufacturers have remained mostly opened throughout the coronavirus pandemic but have had to continuously evolve their policies as workers or their immediate family members have contracted COVID-19.
To combat the dangerous reality many frontline workers are facing, Tyson Foods encouraged their employees to stay home if they were feeling sick and even increased bonuses to all employees putting their lives on the line every day. But more importantly, Tyson believes that:
“… information is the best tool for fighting the virus and so, we’re working to keep our team members informed and are also encouraging them to tell us what they’re experiencing, so we support them in the best possible way.”
Order any supplies needed for on-premise activities. With shortages of common office health and safety supplies such as hand sanitizer still an issue, it might be a challenge getting orders fulfilled and delivered before reopening your doors. If you have multiple offices or locations, make sure you can coordinate with others easily and even take an inventory poll on the current availability of supplies.
Think of all possible workplace safety scenarios. You might have conducted drills or revised plans prior to COVID but there are new situations to think of. Face coverings might make it difficult to easily identify employees entering the building. And unfortunately, even the unthinkable could happen like a disgruntled former employee.
Workplace violence was very much a concern pre-COVID. Medical emergencies might also need to be treated differently. If someone collapses, you might have to quickly isolate them in the event that it could be COVID-related and quickly coordinate with the appropriate internal staff without alarming the rest of the employees.
Communicate new policies, schedules or other critical details in as many ways possible. If you plan on conducting temperature checks on employees before entering the work environment, make sure to communicate in your return-to-work communications. While in-person updates or team meetings might have been effective to relay important company information prior to COVID-19, employee communication methods might have changed.
In fact, in a recent survey on workplace safety and preparedness, mass text messages were the most preferred mode of communication for both on-site, off-site and remote workers. Having a system that can allow you to distribute the same message through various channels, in different languages and even store these documents, along with a directory to important company resources in a mobile-friendly way, will also be beneficial.
Once employees have started to make their way back to work, it’ll be important to continue to monitor the health and wellbeing of your employees, communicate updates, collect data and receive feedback, especially as COVID-19 is expected to re-emerge. Depending on your industry and the roles your employees play, you’ll need to plan for different levels of infection risk.
According to page 7 of OSHA’s “GUIDANCE ON PREPARING WORKPLACES FOR COVID-19”, employee risk can be reduced by doing the following:
Develop an infectious disease preparedness and response plan
Prepare to implement basic infection prevention measures
Develop policies and procedures for prompt identification and isolation of sick people, if appropriate
Implement workplace controls
Follow existing OSHA standards
Your Phase Two return-to-work checklist should include:
Evaluate when to ease restrictions. Depending on how recovery looks like in your individual region, you might be able to ease restrictions for your workplace. This might mean removing wayfinding or allowing more employees in the office at the same time. This might also mean allowing more travel, which means employees will need to have access to updates on the go. Make sure you communicate this information to employees in various ways.
Segment communications to different employees. Make sure you can separate lists for employees entering work in different phases as your communications to each group will likely vary.
Allow temporary visitors or staff to opt into receiving communications. Set up a temporary SMS keyword that any visitors can submit their mobile number to receive important updates.
Provide an anonymous tip line for violations. Give employees a mobile-friendly resource to report return-to-work protocol violations privately and anonymously.
Plan for staffing needs for employees who must stay home. If you’re in certain industries such as manufacturing or construction, getting shift coverage for certain tasks is essential. In some cases, employees might have to stay home, whether they or a family member have a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19. Make sure you can reach out to available and healthy employees who can fill their shift.
Check in on remote employees. If your employees happen to get sick or must remain remote to help care for family members, you can continue conducting wellness checks and capture this data easily for better insight on strategic planning.
As this last phase of recovery continues to evolve, communication will continue to play a main role. Prior to coronavirus hitting, many businesses were focused on improving employee communication for both in-office and remote or traveling employees. This should still be the case as we get closer to the new normal.
A few things to add to your Phase 3 checklist include:
Clean up your distribution lists. It’s likely that temporary employees might change, so you’ll have to make sure your distribution lists are up to date. Luckily, there are some systems that can automatically conduct freshness checks and provide data synchronization across your systems.
Keep a positive culture going. Collaboration tools such as Zoom and Slack have also played a pivotal role during coronavirus and in some cases, might have even brought your employees closer together. Continue any Slack channels you might have started to communicate with a mostly remote workforce. Share safety quotes or other positive stories to keep the momentum going.
Reevaluate your communication process. Many businesses realized from the onset of the coronavirus that they weren’t ready to be fully remote and that email wasn’t going to be enough. And when you compare the different ways to communicate to employees, it’s clear that one channel isn’t enough. Don’t let that same mistake happen again as there will be other more common events such as severe weather that might present the same communication challenges.
As there is more unknown than know in today’s current climate, it’s important to keep your employees informed. Organizations can maximize their employee safety and minimize operational disruption by actively sharing pertinent company news and collecting accurate feedback and information from workers by using a comprehensive mass notification solution. Employers can use the information gathered from employees to determine whether they feel safe returning to the office. Employers can also share their back-to-work plans with workers so that they are kept in the loop and have an idea of when they'll be returning to work. Communication is key.
Andrea is Rave's Director of Digital Marketing, a master brainstormer and avid coffee drinker. Andrea joined Rave in August 2017, after 10 years of proposal and corporate marketing at an environmental engineering firm. You'll find her working with her amazing team in writing and producing blogs like this one, improving your journey to and through our website, and serving you up the best email content. When she's not in front of a keyboard, she's chasing after her three daughters or indulging in her husband's latest recipe. Andrea has a Bachelor's degree in Marketing/Management from Northeastern University and an MBA from Curry College.
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