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The Pandemic Continues to Upend Return-to-Work Decisions: Are You Ready?

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At this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, it might be time to alter the phrase “business as usual” to “business as unusual” — especially if your employees have yet to return to the office. As you navigate the challenges of your return-to-work (RTW) transition, consider these tips to make your path a little smoother.  

Tackle emotional challenges head on

Change is hard, and most of your employees have never experienced change quite like the COVID-19 pandemic. Acknowledge those concerns before, during, and after the RTW transition. Certain employees might fear for their personal health when sharing indoor space with colleagues. Some might be afraid of losing the flexibility of remote work. Furthermore, others might be hesitant simply because RTW is another big transition amid a sea of change. To help employees adjust to the idea of RTW, try to provide at least 30 days’ notice before coming back to the office.

Even before a date has been set, prioritize communications about your safety plans. Include details on temporary or permanent changes to workplace settings and guidelines. Consider creating a “day in the life” email that explains changes to the workplace. Include items like entrance and exit protocols, mask requirements, office layouts, cleaning practices, and potential restrictions to shared spaces.

Provide supervisors with talking points so they are ready when employees turn to them for information. As an organization, share the business reasons for returning to the office. Employees are more likely to get on board when they understand the financial importance of RTW. The best way to make this happen is to make them feel like part of a team effort.

Throughout the RTW transition, send reminders of employee benefits that can help them cope with the change. These can range from big-ticket items such as health insurance, paid time off, flexible work schedules, and employee assistance programs. You should also include targeted offerings like cognitive behavioral therapy, yoga classes, mindfulness training, virtual counseling sessions, and mental health education.

Consider the physical aspects of the workplace

Another major consideration regarding RTW is change in the work environment. Some of these changes may include adding cleaning measures or standards for housekeeping staff; offering disinfectant wipes around high-contact surfaces; maintaining or upgrading ventilation systems; and accounting for social distancing among employees and clients.

Distancing measures could mean changing entire office layouts, such as adding barriers to an open concept environment. Other physical considerations include screening tools like temperature checks and providing masks or face shields if required.

Communicate these changes before employees return so they know what to expect on their first day back. Throughout the office, you may want to put up signage outlining new procedures like traffic flow and elevator usage. In addition, posters can be a visually appealing way to remind employees about covering coughs, monitoring symptoms, reporting illnesses, and other important safety measures.

Continue adhering to compliance requirements

Not even COVID-19 can change the importance of maintaining your legal duties. As the pandemic evolves, so should your compliance response. Please reference the California Department of Public Health, CalOSHA, and local health departments in addition to CDC and EEOC. These agencies can help you improve your RTW plan and assess it for compliance. They are especially useful as it pertains to mask requirements, vaccines, limits on indoor gatherings, and other issues that can fall under the purview of government regulations.

If you haven’t already done so, now is the time to formalize remote work with written guidelines and expectations for employees. Examples include work hours, home office standards, data protection, and cybersecurity requirements. Additionally, set standards for unexpected disruptions to remote capabilities, and required participation for in-person events or conferences. Clearly state that you have the right to modify or discontinue any policy.

Take your particular workforce into account to make sure eligibility for remote work is not discriminatory based on age, race, gender, or other protected characteristics. If you have nonexempt employees as defined by the Fair Labor Standards Act, craft your policies to avoid situations that could give rise to unpaid work or overtime claims.

As with the emotional and physical facets of RTW, communication is vital to your compliance efforts. Let employees know you are following requirements from credible sources, and assure them that they are not subject to retaliation for talking about their COVID-19 concerns.

These days may not be business as usual, but consistently adhering to compliance standards and prioritizing employee well-being are still the best ways to navigate RTW challenges. For more ideas on safety and protection, talk to your broker or adviser.

Copyright © 2021 Applied Systems, Inc. All rights reserved.

Resources

CDC Guidance for Businesses and Employers Responding to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)

Cal/OSHA COVID-19 Guidance and Resources

OSHA Guidance on Returning to Work

EEOC COVID-19 Resources

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