Employers face numerous decisions about when and how to bring employees back to the workplace during the coronavirus pandemic and the various steps to make sure the return goes safely.
Those choices depend largely on each employer’s industry, region and workplace. Corporate offices, factories and coffee shops will handle matters differently, although several general themes apply across sectors and locations.
“There are different ways that employers are figuring this out,” said Emily M. Dickens, the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM’s) chief of staff, corporate secretary and head of government affairs. “Everyone’s back-to-work plans are going to look different.”
SHRM and the Geneva-based International Organization of Employers (IOE) recently issued a guide, Return to Work During COVID-19, to help companies manage the transition to life at work after the pandemic’s global shutdown.
Drawing from back-to-work frameworks in more than a dozen countries, the guide provides a checklist to take employers from the reopening decision to lockdown aftereffects and new employment realities and culture.
Among the various reopening steps being undertaken as of its release on May 6, the guide noted:
- Germany was considering reinstating lockdowns after a rise in new cases.
- Norway will keep restaurants, bars, and sporting and cultural events closed through mid-June, although schools reopened with new rules in late April.
- The U.K.’s lockdown continued as the nation aimed to expand testing capacity. (England has since eased some restrictions.)
The guide provides a comprehensive list of questions and resources for employers to consider as they reopen, implement return plans, and cope with employee mental health issues and other pandemic-related consequences. It also makes suggestions for assessing company culture and embracing new realities like heightened health-and-safety measures and increased teleworking.
”Employers must first consider whether they should reopen their workplaces and realize that doing so involves health, productivity and ethical commitments,” IOE Secretary-General Roberto Suárez Santos said.
“I have decided to have a very conservative approach when returning to work because we are working efficiently in a productive manner,” he said of the IOE. “I prefer to be very conservative because of the health and safety priorities that I need to assume.”
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Dickens and Suárez-Santos agree on the following steps as being important and necessary for businesses around the world to consider, as they get ready to get back to work.
”Business leaders have to communicate frequently about how decisions are being made and what is being done to keep employees safe,” Dickens said, explaining that employees need to trust that employers are keeping their needs top of mind.
“Uncertainty is the enemy of good human resource management,” Suárez said. “We need to dissipate fear” and understand employees’ concerns, he said.
Employers should comply with federal, state and local pandemic regulations and observe recommendations from health authorities, such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
Information, Suárez said—including government regulations, company policies and studies about how the pandemic is evolving—plays an important role. Health and safety regulations may limit the number of people allowed at the office, for example, which may lead to consideration of the extent to which the organization can productively rely on teleworking, he said.
Leaders will use different strategies, depending on their location, industry and culture, Dickens noted. They may wait it out a bit longer, bring back a few employees in a staggered approach and see how social distancing works, allow workers to job share, keep some employees on furloughed status with health insurance, or conduct layoffs.
A company that wants to keep as many people as possible might reduce hours or cut pay across the board, while one focused primarily on the bottom line might make different choices, she said. “There is nothing wrong with either of those cultures,” as long as the organization has conveyed to its workers what the culture is, she said.
“We can’t say for sure now what the next workplace looks like right now because we’re still in the midst of this and something could happen tomorrow,” Dickens said, adding that companies need to build teams that can adapt quickly.
A company with a big open floor plan may decide to close a floor, wait a while longer or keep some people working remotely, she said. When companies bring people back, they’ll face previously unexpected expenses to keep employees feeling comfortable, such as new signs and monitoring physical spacing measures. “There’s a cost related to every change you have to make to accommodate social distancing,” she said.
Consider Remote Working Practices
Dickens cited SHRM data indicating that 60 percent of employees are teleworking during the pandemic. A majority of employers have reported difficulty adjusting to the situation and expect remote working to eventually return to the 5 percent level seen in January 2020. Those statistics probably stand in contrast to employee expectations, she said. Dickens predicts companies will develop “hybrid models” that incorporate various remote working practices.
Employers may need, or see an opportunity, to rework their company’s culture. The technology-driven future of work that HR leaders discussed before the coronavirus outbreak has suddenly moved closer.
Employers, while assuring employees’ health and safety, can build teams in a new manner. Digital tools may allow employers to focus more on results rather than the times and places employees perform work, Suárez said.
Dinah Wisenberg Brin is a freelance reporter and writer based in Philadelphia.