Return To Work Guide

What Are the Initial Steps of Preparing Your Employees to Return to Work?

Trying to figure out what’s best for your back-to-work plan? Given that less than a third (32%) of employees currently feel highly likely to return to work in the office, building and maintaining trust as your employees return to work is essential.  

A report by Deloitte found that the key driving factors of employees’ decisions around going back to work after COVID-19 are vaccination levels, sanitization of the office, transportation (both to and from work, but within the office via shared areas), and personal threshold for safety.

Because of this, it’s essential to have clear, well-developed return to work guidelines in place before your employees actually return to work.

How to know when your company is ready for a back to work plan

First, you’ll need to do a robust return to work risk assessment. A report by PwC says that your employee return to work plan should be phased and led by the ‘zipcode specific’ outbreak information and state guidelines. Your return to work procedure should anticipate and plan for recurrent stay-at-home measures.

PwC advises that to assess readiness, your organization will need to have addressed the following pillars:

  • Managing adoption and employee concerns
  • Ensuring a healthy, safe work environment
  • Ramping up operations to meet evolving demands
  • Understanding the new situations employees face
  • Reconfiguring your workplace for social distancing

How to know when your employees are ready to return to work

One of the best ways to figure out whether your teams are ready to return to work is a simple one – ask them. As Great Place To Work explains, an employee return to work survey is about much more than just safety protocols. It’s about finding out if employees trust their leaders and feel safe and supported in going back to work after COVID-19. 

Your questions about a return to work procedure should address:

  • Social support and connections: do employees have trust in their team to follow rules?
  • Resources and support in and out of work: do employees feel safe leaving their kids or elderly relatives?
  • Confidence and clarity: do employees feel comfortable speaking up about their concerns?
  • Innovation and influence: do employees feel like their ideas are heard?

According to PwC, the results of surveys so far have found that 87% of employees say the office is important for collaborating with team members and building relationships. However, there is a disconnect between when executives anticipate a return (75% say by July 2021) and when employees do (61% by July 2021). 

There’s also a disagreement over the ideal number of days employees should spend in the office, with 68% of executives saying at least three days a week but only 55% of employees saying the same. Your job roles and industry may have different needs, so it’s essential to try to figure these out at an organization-wide level using a similar survey.

How to create a timeline for your back to work plan

According to a report by IBM, your timeline should prioritize the following for an effective back to work plan:

  • Clear communication around cleaning and sanitization (63%)
  • Paid leave if employees become ill (61%)
  • Social distancing guidelines in place (58%)
  • Special accommodations for childcare (41%)

Considerations for the first week of employee return to work

Ahead of the first week of your employees going back to work after COVID-19, your prime concern should be on making the space physically safe.

Focus on getting physical safety procedures right

Healthline recommends the following advice for your initial return to work procedure: 

  • Spread out cubicles, tables, and desks to facilitate distancing
  • Ensure that staff can move safely throughout the office without having to congregate at entrances and common areas
  • Install visual aids with reminders to wear masks, wash hands, and social distance
  • Consider measures to improve air quality through enhanced filtration systems within your air conditioning
  • Think about offering voluntary rapid antigen testing to catch outbreaks before they spread

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) also offers advice for physical safety for employees who return to work. These guidelines include staying home when needed, monitoring your health, wearing a mask, social distancing in shared spaces, washing your hands often, covering your sneezes and coughs, avoiding sharing equipment, and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces.  

Keep your employee return to work communication clear 

Once you have determined overall objectives and gathered employee feedback, Gartner recommends that you’ll need to:

  • Communicate clearly who will return when and what kind of support will be available for them
  • Select the best-fit channels for ongoing communications. For example, you may want to create a distinct group for
  • employees who return to work on email and real-time messaging apps 
  • Create a plan to support leaders and managers
  • Build a long-term back to work plan for collaboration with HR

Considerations for the first month of employee return to work

Check in with your managers

During the first month (and indeed the first few months), you’ll need to assess and potentially reconfigure your back to work plan. Speaking to Harvard Business Review, several CEOs advised that you may need to check in with managers in particular. Due to the nature of their work, managers adopting a remote or hybrid working model are more likely to find it challenging to do their work from outside the office, so their opinions should carry special weight.

Don’t be swayed by high-profile companies

It’s important to not be swayed by what other companies offer for their employee return to work, especially as so far there’s been no strong consensus. Companies such as Netflix, Goldman Sachs, and Wells Fargo all favor a full back to work plan, while some technology companies such as Spotify and Twitter have gained headlines for offering employees unlimited remote work options. Meanwhile, Google has put parameters on theirs. Assess what your teams need, not what other companies are doing.

Considerations for the first quarter of employee return to work

Evaluate whether your office needs have changed

Once a few months have passed on your return to work procedure, you’ll need to confirm whether your office is fit for the reality of your return to work, especially for those who have opted for hybrid or work from home options. Harvard Business Review advises that your office should work as a social anchor, a ‘schoolhouse’ or a center for shared information, and a hub for unstructured collaboration. 

To facilitate this, offer your employees both public (to encourage impromptu encounters) and private spaces (to promote team bonding). The report details how companies such as Dojo offer AI solutions to observe how space is being used and how it could be improved or to create bespoke employee return to work plans.

Don’t miss the opportunities of employees’ return to work

Although it may involve weeks of planning and some logistical headaches, a back to work plan also presents many opportunities to fine-tune your organization. A recent Deloitte report detailed how you should use this time to:

  • Clarify connections between individual jobs and the organization’s mission
  • Reconsider employee wellbeing policies 
  • Use a data-driven approach to assess employees’ needs
  • Integrate AI with team collaboration to drive results
  • Foster adaptability for teams to grow and learn new skills
  • Evaluate principles around compensation for employees
  • Gain real-time workforce data insights
  • Help make more ethical decisions around their workforce
  • Consolidate HR’s impact on the organization

How to create a sustainable back to work plan

Establishing a sustainable plan for your employees’ return to work takes time, careful consideration, and continual reconsideration by both employers and employees. Once the initial foundations are in place, you’ll need to build long-term guidelines for a return to work that are fine-tuned for your organization’s exact needs.

Further reading:

Creating Return to Work Guidelines


Long-term Return to Work Guidelines