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Top 10 return-to-office guidelines HR and business leaders need now

Companies that are reopening offices will need to plan for an entirely different model than what preceded the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are 10 guidelines that can make it easier.

As stay-at-home orders lift, businesses everywhere are faced with a complex decision -- how and whether workers can return to the office.

"While we were 'all in it together' going into the COVID-19 crisis, the same cannot be said for coming out," said Leagh Turner, president of global human capital management firm Ceridian.

In the new normal of face masks and physical distancing, businesses that plan to bring workers back to regular offices will face an intricate array of issues.

Here is specific guidance that business and HR leaders can use as a return-to-office post-COVID-19 checklist.

1. Create a workplace safety task force

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected arguably every business. Some may have suffered from less demand or have been overwhelmed by too much. Business and HR leaders may have made difficult decisions about layoffs or restructuring or been forced to hire in tricky circumstances. Bringing workers back into the office will require a lot of creativity and more hard decisions. That requires bringing together a cross-departmental management team to address the complexities.

"Employers can establish a multi-disciplinary 'COVID-19 Reentry Task Force' with the CHRO, CIO and legal [representatives] leading the charge," said Laura Becker, research manager in the employee experience worldwide services group at IDC.

"The COVID-19 Reentry Task Force can perform a risk assessment of the workplace to see what modifications can be made to ensure physical safety [such as spacing and cleaning]," Becker said. "In addition, a review of CDC, federal, state, local and OSHA guidelines can be undertaken."

2. Create workplace safety policies and procedures

Workplace safety means redesigning coworking spaces and conference rooms to enable and promote social distancing. It also means making sure mask-wearing and other safety policies are in place.

Business and HR leaders will need to address a number of safety issues, said Gonçalo Caeiro, cofounder of JOYN Group Mobile, an IT consulting and outsourcing group.

Here are a few return-to-office safety modifications -- just for a start -- they'll need to consider in a post-COVID-19 world:

  • Staggering exiting traffic;
  • Controlling congestion in hallways, in lunchrooms and around refreshment tables;
  • Instituting workplace temperature screening, such as installing thermal cameras to detect employee fevers;
  • Providing nearly constant cleaning services of various surfaces; and
  • Maintaining adequate supplies of masks and hand sanitizer throughout the facility.

Addressing shared hardware is also a prime safety requirement, Caeiro said. Any hardware that is shared, touched or operated by two or more people either needs to be cleaned between users or replaced with hardware specifically assigned to each user. This can include devices such as printers, copiers, servers, terminals, desktop computers, security door keypads and touchscreens.

3. Prepare for next outbreaks of COVID-19

Based on the current information surrounding COVID-19 and challenges associated with testing and treatment, an initial return to the office may not last. HR leaders and others should plan for multiple employee migrations into and out of the office over time.

"Many public health officials believe that there will either be a second wave, or at a minimum, flare-ups of the virus on an ongoing basis," said Brian Kropp, chief of research in the Gartner HR practice.   

Employers must create an exit plan from the workplace before they have employees come back to work, Kropp said. This will give their employees more confidence that they will be safe in the workplace.

"Just as importantly, leaders will not have to make an in-the-moment decision if there is an eruption of the virus in a particular location," he said.

Employers that plan ahead will have a particular set of triggers and action plans to pursue if workers began testing positive for COVID-19 or start showing symptoms.

4. Understand communication is key

The importance of communication cannot be overstated as it relates to COVID-19. That's especially true when it comes to any returns to the office. Tension and fear surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic is already running high. Bringing workers back into office spaces for hours at a time is sure to heighten those emotions.

Business and HR leaders need to make sure employees understand the business's plans and what to expect in the case of various scenarios. Leaders should also sharpen their empathy skills.

"HR professionals need to be prepared for a variety of responses, reactions and experiences," said Peg Buchenroth, senior vice president of human resources at national staffing agency Addison Group. "Preparing people ahead of time for how business objectives have changed, the proper CDC guidelines and any new employee expectations can help ensure the transition will be as smooth as possible."

5. Boost network security

Widespread security concerns have erupted as working from home opened up network security vulnerabilities.

"HR and IT can work closely together to ensure that all remote employees have access to the workplace cloud to move files seamlessly between home computers to office computers," Becker said.

HR and IT must give special care to ensure no company data is left behind -- or exposed to security problems.

"The merging of work and home environments has led to more blending of company information in personal email and messaging accounts," said Deana Uhl, managing director at FTI Consulting, a global consulting firm. "When employees use personal accounts to view and share company documents containing personally identifiable information and IP [intellectual property], tracking and managing that data can become very messy."

When workers move back into the office spaces, HR and IT need to be prepared to work with legal and compliance teams to remediate employee devices and ensure private information does not remain in unauthorized or unknown locations, Uhl said.

6. Stagger the return

Most businesses will need to do a phased approach to test how well the new normal is working, and in some cases government officials are mandating they do so.

That means the return to the office post-COVID-19 will take many forms.

IBM is one company that plans to orchestrate employee returns to the office in waves. The first wave is based on job roles.

"People who need access to equipment in on-site labs or who require access to more server bandwidth than they get at home will be considered for the first wave," said Lydia Campbell, chief medical officer at IBM. "Key to our strategy is making sure that only those employees who really need to come back in the first wave do so." 

For example, workers won't be able to return to the office just because they have "cabin fever," she said.

"Too many people in a space may disrupt our ability to keep the ones who need to be back healthy and safe," Campbell said.

Business and HR leaders need time to address and test out the various issues such as how to make an open office plan safe and how to address shared spaces such as conference rooms, kitchens and bathrooms.

"We are determining if it's okay to bring people back by leveraging uniform global health and safety standards for health screening, PPE [personal protective equipment], space planning and building services," Campbell said.

7. Consider workplace culture effects

Some companies will opt for a remote, or mostly remote, workforce. Moving to a remote work model carries a number of money-saving benefits such as lower office rent or mortgages, facility maintenance and upkeep, and structure insurance.

"As we continue to conduct the largest pilot in the history of the world, one of the things that is emerging is that employees who are working remote are just as productive as employees who are in the workplace," Kropp said.

However, employee productivity isn't the only factor in making a business a success.

Today's work largely depends on collaboration, Kropp said. And even though collaboration technology has improved, it doesn't equal the in-person experience.

"Creating a core culture to engage employees is much harder to achieve in a remote environment compared to an in-person environment," Kropp said. "Without these deep cultural connections, remote employees are actually at a higher turnover risk compared to employees who come into the workplace."

8. Anticipate employee experience issues

Some employees may not want to return to the office for myriad reasons, including fear of COVID-19 exposure, a preference for working at home or for other personal reasons.

"Beyond the logistics of safely returning to the office, we also recognize that there are some serious emotional and mental health implications for our employees, as well as concerns about the health of their families, childcare challenges, transportation disruptions and beyond," said Todd Riesterer, chief people officer at LogicMonitor, a provider of IT infrastructure monitoring.

Some of these issues, such as public transportation or childcare disruptions, may be something your company can directly address with alternative processes, policies or technology. Or you may need to consider these issues in weighing which employees are to return to the office, and in what order.

9. Understand legal implications of reluctant employees

Other issues, such as an employee's or their family members' pre-existing health conditions, may expose your company to legal or compliance issues.

"If an employee refuses to return to work because they have an underlying medical condition that puts them at a higher risk, the employer should engage in an interactive process to determine if the person has a bona fide disability and, if so, if they can accommodate that disability," said Damien Weinstein, an employment attorney at Weinstein and Klein.

"Under certain scenarios, an employee's refusal to return to work can be legally protected," Weinstein said. "OSHA requires employers to furnish a workplace free from recognized hazards that are likely to cause death or serious physical harm."

Beware of forcing employees to return to the office. Make sure it is worth the struggle -- and potential costs -- before you proceed.

"In all practicality, employers cannot have all of their employees back into the workplace and [achieve] social distancing," Kropp said. "In addition, the reputational impacts on employers if they forced employees to come back into the workplace could be very damaging."

10. Seek legal guidance

The return-to-office effort is filled with additional legal minefields, especially those related to discriminatory practices.

 "[For example,] it is illegal to treat someone differently because of their ancestry, especially Asian-American ancestry, due to the false stereotype that such employees are more likely to have COVID-19," said Robert Bird, professor of business law at the University of Connecticut. 

Additional pitfalls exist in official guidance too.

"Employment laws are rapidly developing as they apply to COVID-19 but the full force of state and federal employment laws still apply," Bird said.

Health screening may be part return to office post-COVID-19 processes, and HR and business leaders must familiarize themselves with information such as guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) published last month.

"The EEOC is greenlighting mandatory medical testing for COVID-19," said Carrie Hoffman, partner at law firm Foley and Lardner, LLP.

On the other hand, this guidance does not speak to the issues of testing vendors, retention of testing records, records privacy or liability for incorrect results, Hoffman said.

"All such issues should be vetted with competent employment and healthcare counsel before moving forward," she said.

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