Back to the office: Keys for safely returning people to the unknown

7 min read

If you’re tasked with coordinating, communicating, or deciding on any aspects of a return-to-office plan this year, we feel for you. Simply put, it’s an unenviable position to be in.

Social distancing mandates vary from state to state, sometimes even town to town, and different businesses require different levels of in-person interaction to function efficiently. Much remains indefinite, and the possibility of a fall or winter COVID-19 resurgence makes contingency planning all the more imperative. 

What does returning to the office in 2020 look like? Much of that answer ultimately depends on the state and local restrictions your company is subject to, and what’s right for your people.

Regardless, planning must proceed. Whether yours is a five-person operation or a time-zone-spanning series of satellite offices, you’ll need to:

  • Keep employees in the know.
  • Let feedback dictate logistics.
  • Evolve your implementation plan.
  • Establish backup plans upfront.

Let’s walk through what each of these means in greater detail:

Keep employees in the know.

Above all else, as an HR or operations professional, your priority should be to remain clear and transparent throughout this process. Timelines are going to fluctuate, and the frequency of your communications may even vary. What’s important is that you proactively keep your people apprised of what you’re considering, and how it may affect them. 

You can assess different re-opening dates at intervals based on the rate at which new information is received. That is, if the situation in your state or municipality is relatively unchanged for a month, you may not have any substantial new updates to provide in that time frame. 

But be sure to provide a buffer between the announcement of and date for any tentative return to the office. A two- to four-week window of time should give people ample opportunity to decide, prepare, and make any necessary arrangements for their own potential return. 

Safety and comfort are the highest priorities, so when communicating updates be sure to note:

  • Day-to-day office modifications (i.e., for shared spaces like break and conference rooms)
  • New protocols and enforcement measures
  • Expectations for reporting safety deficiencies

Share all safety materials upfront so they’re accessible at any time. Keeping a binder full of physical signage in the office, as well as a shared Google Drive for digital versions, is prudent. When in doubt, utilize all communication channels available—email, Slack, company webinars, and anything else suited to your established culture

The last thing you want is for people to feel in the dark. Assign a first point of contact from your team to answer chat or email queries, so that employees don’t misinterpret communications, buy too much PPE, or double up on other provided materials. 

Let feedback dictate logistics.

Headcount and capacity will determine a lot of what you end up doing. It’s imperative that you solicit feedback as an organization to determine both what people are comfortable with and what you can accommodate

Conduct an employee survey, if you haven’t already, to see where people stand, asking:

  • If given the choice, would you want to go back to the office, or stay remote?
  • When’s the earliest you’d feel safe going back to the office?
  • What do you need to ensure an easy/comfortable transition?

Once you know how many people want to return to the office, and in what capacity, you can begin coordinating the logistics. 

Get IT involved early. Just as it did when transitioning from the office to remote work, this department will play a vital role in ensuring everyone has the equipment (and space) they need within this redefined office.

Tech considerations will include, but aren’t limited to:

  • How many people will be in the office on a given day?
  • Where are those people’s work stations located?
  • What equipment needs to be transported to/from home offices?

Even if the return date itself is a moving target, you can account for your people’s needs through their feedback. Maybe you have only a handful of employees who are comfortable with an office environment at this stage. Or, perhaps you’ll be at 75% capacity within the next couple months. Whatever the case, be sure to account for the highest possible denominator.

Don’t be afraid to lean on an employment attorney or property manager once you have a good feel for those numbers. They may be your best resources in terms of understanding (and communicating to your people) specifics around public spaces, building access, cleaning procedures, and support for tenants during the transition. 

Evolve your implementation plan.

It’s been said so often that it’s become a bit of a cliche, but like many cliches, it’s rooted in truth: The only certainty with the COVID-19 pandemic is continued uncertainty. 

The indefinite nature of the situation certainly doesn’t make the job of HR teams any easier. It’s difficult to establish hard, codified protocols at this stage—let alone enforce them. Your best bet is to remain transparent throughout the process, and emphasize the evolving nature of the situation. 

Things are likely to change, but people can rest assured that you will be clear in your communications and understanding of their evolving feelings. Empathy on both sides will be essential throughout the process. 

In terms of what you can control, strive to:

  • Be clear in distinguishing between requirements and “best practices.”
  • Coordinate with an employment attorney to remain in local compliance.
  • Designate an on-site lead for each day/week to enforce physical distancing protocol.

Posters, signage, and other physical reminders will all be important as people trickle back in. But maybe most effective will be your messaging, which starts at the leadership level. Make sure everyone in the C Suite and within HR/People Ops is on the same page. 

Click here —>> for some return-to-office-signage inspiration, courtesy of PI Senior Designer Lindsey Clancy.

Communicate the need to comply as a social contract and personal responsibility. Protocols and precautions, fluid as they may be, are in place to protect you and your loved ones, but also your coworkers and their loved ones. There are ways to do this with humor, too, bringing a little levity to what’s surely a heavy situation for everyone. 

Establish backup plans upfront.

As we move toward the fall, the multimillion dollar question for many businesses remains: What sort of preparations need to be made in the event social distancing mandates are reimposed? 

Nobody wants to think about going backward, but the reality is that someone has to. You’re doing your people a disservice if you don’t have contingency plans (ideally a couple of them) devised and drawn out. First and foremost: Have a plan for notifying people of any exposures. Your state and local health departments should offer guidelines for doing so

Share these guidelines and any additional protocols you’re putting in place early. Reiterate the likelihood that employees will be thrown curveballs. Cleaning procedures might change. Supply availability could fluctuate. Contact tracers might show up at the office, asking questions and logging information about visitors and exposures. And if one person in the office is sick or tests positive, your operations will almost certainly need to return to remote, at least for a short time. 

None of this will be business as usual. Your team will have to expect the unexpected, and remain flexible and understanding. 

By communicating regularly and transparently, you’ll mitigate some of the uncertainties. Outline what you can for contingency plans using company slides or other shared materials. But remind everyone that not every exposure or procedural pivot can be accounted for in advance.

This pandemic has forced us all to reconsider what constitutes “normal,” and the office environment is no different. The best-laid plans may be revised, but in times of high uncertainty, strong leadership from HR professionals is at a premium. You’ll be amazed what a measured, thorough and empathetic approach can do for promoting resilience throughout the organization.

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Caraline is the office coordinator at PI.

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