Is Your Business Ready to Welcome Employees Back to the Office?
As more people receive a COVID vaccination, many employers are weighing their options and starting to make decisions about returning to the office. A colleague and I recently discussed what happens after you're vaccinated with a group of young professionals with the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce. We had a great discussion about considerations and forming a plan for returning to the workplace once more people are fully vaccinated.
Where Should We Start?
The best way to get a read on what will work best for your company and employees is to conduct a return-to-work employee survey. A recent study by global staffing firm, Robert Half, showed that 1 in 3 employees said they would look for a new job if required to come into the office full time. In addition, they found 49% of employees prefer to work in a hybrid environment, with both remote and in-office work.
Many companies are looking at subletting their office space or reducing their office footprint. To assess your company's needs, survey your employees with questions such as:
- How soon do you feel you will be comfortable returning to work? (Consider including response options based on a timeline, when people are vaccinated, or when restrictions are fully lifted.)
- If you were given a choice, how often would you like to come into the office? (Include options such as daily, 3-4 times/week, 1-2 times/week, or only for meetings or events.)
- What would help you feel more comfortable with returning to the office?
- What concerns you the most about returning to the office?
- What motivates you to want to return to the office?
- Do you feel you are able to be as productive while working from home or would you feel more productive in the office?
Once you have the information from your employee survey, you can then look at your office space needs and consider your next steps.
PwC also conducted research on remote work, which may help you determine what types of questions to include in your survey. It also contains some significant findings on what the future of work will look like and how employees versus executives feel about returning to the office.
Plan, Plan, Plan
If you decide to invite employees back into the office, you will want to have a plan in place that covers how to handle some of the following situations:
- How will you handle entry into the office? Will you require temperature screenings or require employees to complete a survey before coming into the office? Will employees need to provide proof of being vaccinated? What areas need to have occupancy limits?
- What will you do if someone who has been in the office receives a positive COVID test result? How will you manage communication with close contacts while maintaining compliance with HIPAA?
- Will you require employees to be fully vaccinated before returning to the office? If so, how will you handle individuals who are not vaccinated? It's important to consider compliance issues, such as religious accommodations and accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). How will you handle employees who refuse to return to the office, regardless of if they are or are not vaccinated?
Thinking through potential hurdles prior to reopening is essential so your employees and managers know how to handle the different situations or complications that may arise.
Procedures for Entering/Leaving the Office
Another consideration as employees start to return to the office is developing procedures for entering and leaving the office. Many companies are not allowing any office visitors; some companies only permit vaccinated individuals, others are requiring temperature screening or a close contact survey before entering the building.
The CDC issued information to provide administrative controls for employers looking to reopen the office. First and foremost, employers need to stress to employees to stay home if they are not feeling well. Other considerations include:
- staggering start, stop, and break times;
- posting frequent signs to remind employees to wear face masks, maintain social distancing, and frequently wash hands;
- limit occupants in common areas like conference rooms, break rooms, etc.; and
- ensure high touch surfaces are cleaned often.
Employee Safety & Well-Being
In addition to having a clear plan in mind, you'll want to consider your employees' safety and well-being. With the lingering questions of how long vaccine efficacy will last and if those fully vaccinated do or cannot spread COVID, it's important to maintain safety procedures like social distancing and require employees to continue wearing face masks indoors. (As a side note, FSAs and HSAs now cover the costs of PPE, including face masks, hand sanitizer, gloves, and sanitizing wipes.)
The CDC released updated guidance for individuals who are fully vaccinated. A couple of highlights include clarification that fully vaccinated workers no longer need to: 1) be restricted from work following an exposure if they are asymptomatic and 2) wear a mask outdoors, except in crowded settings.
Employers will need to continue to monitor CDC and local public health guidelines to ensure they are compliant with protective measures for their employees.
Employee well-being should also be considered. At this point in the pandemic, is offering an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) enough for your employees? If you have employees who are struggling, we recommend encouraging employees to use their PTO to avoid burnout, even if it's just for a long weekend or a couple of days to get away from the computer to rest and recharge. In addition, employers may consider offering other resources for well-being. There are apps like Calm and Headspace that help with relaxation, stress relief, meditation techniques, or Talkspace, an online therapy app.
Newly Onboarded Employees
Returning to a physical office space will be exceptionally interesting for employees who were remotely onboarded during the pandemic. Many employees who changed jobs and have been working remotely have never met their coworkers in person and have never even set foot in the company's office space. Meeting so many people in person for the first time can be overwhelming in and of itself.
HR and managers can help support the transition for newer employees by providing an office orientation. This can include in-person introductions to the team, showing the new-to-office employees around the space (including showing them where to find the bathrooms, conference rooms, coffee, snacks, etc.), and introducing them to the office norms. Office norms may include the in-office dress code (which actually would be helpful for all employees who have gotten used to sweatpants and t-shirts at home), expectations for booking office/conference room space, and other things that may be unique to your company.
This is still a continuously evolving situation. As the number of fully vaccinated people continues to increase, we expect to see more guidance and data released, so employers need to keep up to date on CDC guidance and local public health guidelines. Even those fully vaccinated employees should continue to maintain social distancing, wear a face mask, and follow the other protocols intended to keep employees safe and healthy. In addition, we expect open and transparent communication and flexibility to remain important for employers who want to ensure their employees feel safe, happy, and valued.