Before employers bring employees back into the office, one of the first questions they’ll have to ask is which workers should return first. While some companies expect to eventually bring everyone back to the office, a June survey by PwC of 330 U.S. corporate finance officers found that most – 54 percent – expected to make remote work a permanent option for the roles that allow it.
Like much about the pandemic, this is unfamiliar ground for many decision-makers. Health and safety risk have until now rarely been top-of-mind for office-based workforces. However, today they are among everyone’s top priorities. And along with the moral, ethical and legal concerns about protecting workers from the virus, leaders are contemplating the fact that some business functions are best accomplished in-person.
Some leaders recognize that a successful return to the office could mean a significant post-COVID competitive advantage. Businesses that begin bringing employees back sooner rather than later may receive some first-mover advantages by quickly learning how to create, manage and inspire agile teams consisting of both remote and on-site employees. This knowledge may prove critical in recruiting and retaining talent down the line, as the past few months of remote work may have forever changed employees’ expectations of workforce policies — having experienced work-from-home without significant productivity disruption, they may be more likely to choose to work for a company that’s receptive to allowing them to work from home a few days a week.
Achieving that competitive advantage begins with deciding who should come back first. Developing a workable answer involves numerous interlocking and changeable factors, from corporate mission requirements to future legal and regulatory risks.
The first step in the decision-making process is to determine whether an employee’s on-site presence is absolutely necessary for the corporation to achieve its mission. “It starts with, ‘Who do you need to be physically present?’ And that’s not, ‘Who do you want?’ It’s, ‘Who do you need,” says Mark Kluger, a Fairfield, New Jersey-based employment attorney with law firm Kluger Healey who has been advising employers on back-to-work decisions.
This is the track some companies, at least, are following. “The nature of a person's work is the most vital factor that determines their working location,” says Yaniv Masjedi, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Scottsdale, Arizona-based business telephone system provider Nextiva. “If a person's responsibilities are doable in a remote-working set-up, companies should opt to let them continue working remotely. However, positions that need to be on-site need to return to the company.”
A key concern is whether a home office can be set up to allow secure access to sensitive corporate data. That’s an early test for at Atlanta background screening company First Advantage, where Chief Experience Officer Joelle Smith says, “As we return to the physical workplace, we are reevaluating the office requirement for every role and if it’s possible to create a secure work environment at home we will do this; if not, then those workers will return to the office.”
Deciding who is essential and must return to work is necessarily guided by the regulatory and legal environment. Different states, regions and countries have taken varying approaches. For instance, one July survey found more than 80 percent of French workers had returned to work, while only a little more than a third of British workers had gone back to the office.
In many countries, central health authorities have placed limits on return to work. In the U.S., executive orders by governors have provided some of the most on-point guidance, Kluger says. This means what is legal varies by state. For instance, Kluger notes that executive orders from the New Jersey governors’ offices restrict on-site work to essential employees only in that state. New York, on the other hand, allows return of employees up to half the office’s capacity, but doesn’t address the employees’ duties.
“While there’s a sense that in our part of the country things are normalizing and employers want to have people back int the office, we still have executive orders saying only people who are necessary and can’t work remotely,” he says. To find out what’s legal in your country, region or state, Kluger suggests checking orders from the regional health authority’s office, as these have largely supplanted the local city orders that arose in the pandemic’s early days.
A Framework for Returning
To most effectively address the needs of employees as well as the business, it may be better to start with a small number of employees, Kluger suggests. This will show employers what’s working and where bottlenecks are likely to arise. To operationalize a limited return, on-site and executive teams may first want to start by building a framework for returning based on a handful of critical pillars — when to return, who should return, and how should they return.
Businesses that begin bringing employees back sooner rather than later may receive some first-mover advantages by quickly learning how to create, manage and inspire agile teams consisting of both remote and on-site employees
Starting by asking when to return allows decision-makers to hone in on the realities of the local situation, defining parameters based on the local regulations, quantitative thresholds (i.e., the local level of infection) and qualitative conditions such as site restrictions. From here, they should be able to get a better picture of the overall risk of opening back up and ultimately determine whether a return is the right move.
Next, decision-makers can move to asking who should return first, prioritizing teams that require or are more productive with the use of on-site facilities. For example, companies that host their own network or storage stacks may want to prioritize the return of IT teams to ensure they’re capable of keeping technology online for the rest of the company.
Finally, decision-makers can turn their attention to determining how employees can return. One way to bring employees back within the approved parameters is through a phased approach. A phased approach can allow operations teams to slowly increase the footprint of on-site employees while controlling the potential spread of the virus and ensuring facilities are appropriately outfitted to handle the return. It can allow for critical data collection that allows them to understand how their protocols and procedures are working, and what needs their attention and refinement in the long term.
For example, the first phase of a four-phased approach may include less than 10% of employees returning. These employees could be essential staff – facilities, security and tech teams – and provide decision-makers with key insights that help them understand how effectively employees understand and follow rules such as mandatory mask wearing or enforced social distancing. Any gaps or issues that arise may help decision-makers understand how they need to adjust on-site signage, or how feasible a staggered time return is in the long-term.
A Safe Workplace
Experts say that employees who show signs of illness, have tested positive for the virus or have recently been exposed must not return to work, perhaps until a quarantine period has elapsed. “Returning team members must not exhibit flu-like symptoms to gain access inside the company,” Masjedi says.
“If a person shows any signs, security personnel stationed at entrances can deny them entry for the health and safety of the people inside,” he continues. Should an onsite worker test positive, companies may use smartphone-based mobile contact tracing apps to identify which employees may have been exposed and then limit those workers’ return or continued presence. This approach, however, may raise privacy concerns among employees. Before deploying any contract tracing apps, consider consulting your legal and HR teams to craft a policy that appropriately balances your employees’ expectations of privacy with the safety and health of on-site staff.
Another category of workers who may not return soon could simply include those unwilling to do so over health concerns or whose domestic responsibilities have evolved during quarantine. Despite nightly deep cleaning, widely spaced workstations, upgraded air filtering and other precautions employers may put in place, some employees may simply not be able to work in comfort in an office with others if they are concerned about getting sick or bringing the virus home to vulnerable family members. Additionally, employees with child- or elderly-care responsibilities may need to stay home to tend to those obligations.
Decision-makers should understand and empathize with their employees’ unique situations while finding ways to meet their own business needs. One sound first step is to look to the legal and regulatory frameworks that have been established to provide businesses and employees with guidance. For example, Kluger notes the Centers for Disease Control has determined that people with compromised immune systems or over age 65 are at higher risk from COVID-19. “Employment litigation is already starting to spike with discrimination cases involving employers requiring employees with health conditions to return to work or be terminated,” he says.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Americans With Disabilities Act are some sources of potential legal and regulatory problems should a worker be fired for refusing to return to a workplace that isn’t safe or hasn’t made suitable accommodations. State and local laws and regulators can also direct treatment of workers who don’t want to come back.
Employers can expand the number of workers willing to return quickly to work by communicating what is being done to keep workplaces safe. Posters, memos, webinars and virtual training sessions are all being used to communicate how screening procedures for office visitors, after-hours cleaning practices, staggered work schedules and social distancing practices are maintaining a healthy office. Additionally, some companies’ proprietary apps designed to streamline check-in processes may have the added benefit of reassuring their employees that the company is investing serious time and energy to ensuring safety is a priority across all touchpoints, even tech.
“It’s important to maintain optimism with your workforce, who are in this with you,” Smith notes. “Positivity will go a long way towards ensuring that you can continue to deliver business as usual.”
Who Returns Summary
Every company may have a somewhat different strategy for deciding who will come back. However, the basic outline will look similar for most. Smith sums up her recommendations: “The order in which workers come back to work should be based on access requirements (data, information or technology), role and impact for the company and customers (risk vs. reward knowing attrition may be an undesirable result) and personal comfort.”
Of course, COVID-19 is nothing if not unpredictable, but already corporate leaders can expect certain issues to arise in the near future. School closure is one. Without more federally-subsidized paid leave for parents of school-age children, employers may have difficult decisions to make when workers decline to return to the office due to caregiving responsibilities Kluger says.
All this change is not necessarily for the worse. “Remote working can become a permanent option that companies can offer their people,” Masjedi says. “If employee performance, collaboration, and productivity do not get affected by remote working, companies would undoubtedly prefer their people to work remotely since it can save operational expenses.”
And resourceful and nimble leadership now may pay off when the situation stabilizes. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of PwC surveyed in June said work flexibility was the factor that would make their companies better in the long run. That forecast fits Smith’s overall view as well. “A big lesson is that companies with a high level of change agility will prevail,” she says. “If businesses are able to morph to the changing times and have the ability to respond to the changing times, workers will naturally gravitate to those organizations.”