back to work sticky note on calendar

The coronavirus pandemic has interrupted many businesses across the country. Employers are beginning to look to the future of employees returning for work.
The return to normalcy will not be like flipping a switch, but rather a gradual effort. In preparation for reopening your business and asking employees to come back to work, it is important that your company thoughtfully creates a return to work plan for employees to keep everyone healthy and safe.

A return to work plan is typically created to help reintegrate workers who have been injured or have been on leave. The plan includes details on how the worker will gradually return to work and any job-related specifics. Its purpose is to formalize steps for a safe and quick return to work. It has been proven that employees who go through return to work plans can get back to work quicker than those who do not, meaning that employers will see increased productivity following an employee’s return to work.

Employees also benefit from return to work plans, as they feel supported by their employer, which increases engagement and loyalty to the company. Now, more than ever before, it is vitally important that your employees feel secure and stable in their roles as they return to work following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Keeping in mind your area’s specific guidance for returning to work as well as the industry you operate in, below are items to consider so that you and your employees know what is expected.*

  • Anticipated return to work date – With the uncertainty that COVID-19 has brought, it is important to give clear information and dates when employees are to return to work whenever possible. Be sure to be flexible with your dates as local and state orders are frequently updated. Consider bringing employees back in phases before bringing everyone back to ensure proper distancing.
  • Disinfecting and cleaning measures – Because COVID-19 can remain on surfaces long after they have been touched, it is important that your business frequently cleans and disinfects the facility. If your office has been closed during the stay-at-home provisions, consider a thorough cleaning and disinfecting of the entire facility before any employee returns to work. Some best practices include:
      • Cleaning and disinfecting all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace, such as workstations, keyboards, telephones, handrails, doorknobs, and copy machines.
      • Discouraging workers from using other worker’s phones, desks, offices, or other tools and equipment, when possible. If necessary, clean and disinfect them before and after use.
      • Providing disposable wipes so that commonly used surfaces can be wiped down by employees before each use.
  • Social distancing protocol – Social distancing is the practice of deliberately increasing the physical space between people to avoid spreading illness. In terms of COVID-19, social distancing best practices for businesses can include:
      • Avoiding gathering of 10 or more people
      • Instructing workers to maintain at least 6 feet of distance from other people
      • Hosting meetings virtually when possible
      • Limiting the number of people on the job site to essential personnel only (no visitors to your building)
      • Discouraging people from shaking hands
  • Employee screening procedures – To keep employees safe, consider conducting screening procedures to identify potentially ill employees before they enter the office. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) permits employers to measure employees’ body temperatures before allowing them to enter the worksite. Any employee screening should be implemented on a nondiscriminatory basis, and all information gleaned should be treated as confidential medical information under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – specifically, the identity of workers exhibiting a fever or other COVID-19 symptoms should only be shared with members of company management with a true need to know. Be sure to notify employees that you will be screening them to avoid any surprises.
  • Employee safety training – Your return to work plan should include detailed safety training guidance to ensure all employees understand how they can prevent the spread of COVID-19. Your plan should discuss the following safety training topics:
      • Respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene – providing tissues and no-touch trash receptacles; Providing soap and water in the workplace; Placing hand sanitizers in multiple locations to encourage hand hygiene; Reminding employees to not touch their eyes, nose, or mouth
      • Personal protective equipment (PPE) – PPE is equipment worn by individuals to reduce exposure to a hazard, in this case, COVID-19. Businesses should focus on training workers on proper PPE best practices. PPE may include providing masks for employees and information as to when/where they wear the mask as well as the proper way to wear the mask.
      • Staying home when sick – Encourage employees to err on the side of caution if they are not feeling well and stay home when they are sick or are exhibiting common symptoms of COVID-19 (cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fever, sore throat, runny nose, chills, muscle pain or loss of taste or smell.
  • Mental health considerations – The COVID-19 pandemic has increased stress levels of employees across the country. It is important that your return to work plan includes guidance for managing employee mental health concerns when employees return to work. Do you have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) in place? If so, provide the website, email, or phone number to the EAP. Does your medical plan offer telemedicine? Many telemedicine vendors also provide mental health provider assistance.
  • Process for individualized requests – Employees will be returning to work and facing different situations at home or with their health. You return to work should include information about how employees can go about making individualized requests for changes to a return to work plan. Some may have underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk of serious illness with COVID-19, meaning they may not be able to fully return to work and may need to be in your final phase of bringing individuals back to the workplace. Employees age 65 or older or who are caring for family members in their homes who are age 65 or older may need to stay away from the workplace for a longer period depending on your area or industry. Others may be facing childcare arrangements due to schools and day cares being closed. Be flexible and compassionate in your response to individualized requests.

Returning to work after the pandemic is likely to bring challenges to your organization. Some of the most common challenges that you will need to be prepared for include the following:

  • Changing worker priorities – If you asked employees to work from home during the pandemic, employees may want to still enjoy work from home arrangements even after the office is reopened. Be prepared for an increased demand in work from home requests, and you may need to expand your pre-COVID-19 policies to meet this demand.
  • Updating the office layout – Due to social distancing protocols, your company may need to reconfigure the office’s layout. Per the guidelines, employee workstations should be 6 feet apart to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Consider alternating workweeks for groups of employees (work remote one week, at the office the next) to control the number of people in any given work area.
  • Adapting to changing rules and regulations – Due to the nature of COVID-19, rules and regulations are constantly changing. Be prepared to change your business practices if needed to maintain critical operations. This could involve identifying alternative suppliers, prioritizing existing customers or suspending portions of your operations.
  • Managing reputational effects – Given the scope of the pandemic and how much is still currently unknown about the situation, people may have strong opinions about your decision to reopen your business. You will need to be prepared for reputational effects of reopening your business. By taking the steps to keep your employees and customers safe and healthy, you can manage any reputational effects of opening after the pandemic.

Remember, reopening your business after the COVID-10 pandemic is not as simple as opening your doors. Evaluate each step of your reopening and gradually ask employees to return to work.

*Ideas provided by “HRInsights”, Zywave, Inc.

The information in this article is made available for general information purposes only. It is not intended to provide specific regulatory, scientific, or legal advice. The content must not be relied upon as a sole source to determine regulatory compliance or any obligation under state or federal law. We advise consultation with outside legal counsel should you require further information.