The COVID-19 crisis is far from over, and health experts say that even a vaccine will not suddenly end the pandemic. However, there is cautious optimism in many parts of the world that the worst is behind, which means it is safe (at least for the time being) to methodically allow some employees to return to the workplace.

This is the case here at Devolutions, as we have started bringing back a limited number of staff to our head office — per the mandates and guidance of public health officials. We are taking this situation very seriously, and to protect our workforce, our current policy is that we will not allow more than 25% of our employees to return before 2021. We have also made mask wearing mandatory (as per public health rules), and we’ve installed multiple hand sanitizer stations throughout our building.

In an effort to assist other businesses, here are five questions that need to be answered to ensure a safe and organized transition back to the office:

1. How do we keep returning workers safe?

This is obviously the most important question that must be answered. Generally, businesses need to address all of the following issues before workers start returning:

  • Social distancing. This will be more difficult for businesses that have an open office environment, as they may need to install plexiglass dividers between workers/workspaces.
  • Traffic flows. Before the pandemic, nobody thought twice about which way they were walking in the halls. However, it is now necessary for businesses to impose one-way traffic flows to enforce social distancing throughout the office/building.
  • Screening. Depending on where a business is located, daily worker temperature checks may be mandatory or advised. Workers may also be asked to self-identify whether they have any potential COVID-19 symptoms, such as fever, sore throat, headaches, loss of taste or smell, etc.
  • Sanitization. To prevent potential community spread, businesses need to remain vigilant about keeping workplaces clean and sanitized, paying particular attention to high-touch surfaces and common areas. Workers should also be advised against using their colleagues’ phones, desks, offices, work tools, and equipment. When this is not possible, workers should clean and disinfect shared items before and after use, and properly wash/sanitize their hands (if they are not wearing gloves) after use. Washrooms should be continuously stocked with both soap and hand sanitizer, and hand sanitizer stations should be installed throughout the office/building.
  • Signage. Businesses should post signage that reminds employees about the importance of coughing/sneezing protocol and proper hand hygiene.
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). In non-healthcare settings, PPE for workers will typically involve wearing a mask or face covering (gloves may also be advised/optional). It is extremely important for ALL workers to abide by PPE rules.
  • Meeting protocol. Returning workers who are suffering from virtual meeting fatigue shouldn’t celebrate by deleting Zoom from their computer. While small in-person meetings will be fine, larger gatherings will still need to take place virtually in order to maintain social distancing (i.e. 10 workers all in the same office may need to meet online vs. gather in one space/room).

Click here for more advice on making the workplace safe for returning workers.

2. Who should we bring back first?

Many employees at this point may be suffering from remote worker fatigue and cannot wait to escape their home office next to a loud furnace in the basement. However, the initial group of employees who return to the workplace should be those whose in-person presence is critical (i.e. those who cannot do their job/cannot fully do their job remotely). For many businesses, this includes IT and facility management staff.

3. When should workers be coming back?

It may be necessary for businesses to implement a staggered schedule, in which some workers return to the workplace on (for example) Mondays and Wednesdays, while others return to the workplace on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Or, some workers may return between 9am and 12pm, while others return between 1pm and 4pm.

There are two basic advantages of a staggered schedule:

  • The first advantage is that it allows more people to return to work (albeit in a limited way). This is an important consideration, since many workers who were thrilled about working from home back in March and April are now at the point where they’d welcome the opportunity to return to the office.
  • The second advantage is that if a worker on a certain shift (e.g. those who work Mondays and Wednesdays) becomes infected with the virus, then based on the details, it may be allowable for the group that he or she works with to be quarantined, rather than the entire building.

4. What should our policy be regarding visitors?

Businesses also need policies and procedures that govern on-site visitors (e.g. customers, suppliers, vendors, strategic partners, etc.). For example, visitors should be allowed by appointment only, and visitors should undergo COVID-19 screening and abide by all prevailing social distancing guidelines. Visitor management software is also advised for accurate contact tracing.

5. What should our communication strategy be?

Throughout this situation — which is going to last for many months and possibly years — businesses need to make sure they are communicating with all workers (not just those who are allowed to return to the workplace). Here are some factors to consider:

  • Clearly communicate what each return-to-work phase will look like. Be open, transparent, and honest.
  • Invite all workers to share feedback, either publicly or privately. Some workers may be very anxious about returning to work, and others may be obliged to stay home with their school-aged children. Businesses should be as flexible, understanding, and compassionate as possible. Now is the time to truly demonstrate that “employees are our most valuable asset.”
  • Be vigilant about fairness in order to avoid allegations of favoritism and resentment. Not everyone will be allowed to return to the workplace — and not everyone will want to return to the workplace. Without breaching any confidences, businesses should clearly explain the reasons for all staffing decisions.

The Bottom Line

This is an unprecedented scenario, and the only certainty at this point is that there is much uncertainty ahead. However, businesses that competently answer these five questions and follow the mandates and advice of public health officials will put themselves on the path to a safe and organized return-to-work transition.