Return To Work Guide

Long-Term Guidelines for Going Back to Work After COVID-19

Once you have completed the initial steps for your employees’ return to work, it’s time to think about your long-term plans for going back to work after COVID-19. It’s not just a matter of safety for your employees to go back to work; it’s also about maximizing the new potential that the hybrid office holds.

When it comes to going back to work after COVID-19, what employers say versus what they do is hugely important. A recent report by Deloitte advises against overpromising and under-delivering when employees go back to work. Not delivering on return to work requirements may reduce the likelihood of frequent returns to the office, eroding trust.

Address safety concerns outside the workplace

In the long-term, the office of the future not only needs to be safe inside but before you step in the door. For example, the safety of public transport is now a significant concern for employees going back to work, with over a third of those who used it previously to commute citing they will now use other methods. For this, businesses can provide things like parking subsidies, company car allowances, private bus services, or local coworking spaces. Don’t be afraid to problem solve.

Understand your employees’ different approaches

It’s also important to remember that your employees who do go back to work will have different levels of risk aversion. Deloitte’s research has distilled this down to three personality types:  

  • Protectors who do not trust others but maintain a small inner circle
  • Pragmatists who have low levels of trust in the public but a large inner circle
  • Prevailers who trust the public and feel comfortable expanding their circle

When planning your return to work requirements, you’ll need to ensure that all three personality types are catered for, especially in terms of the hybrid or work from home options offered if they are not comfortable going back to work after COVID-19 full-time.

How to handle COVID vaccine requirements

One of the simplest solutions for creating a safe work environment when employees are going back to work after COVID-19 is to look at COVID vaccine requirements. A report by Inc clarifies that you can legally make the vaccine required as a condition of employment. However, you may have to excuse employees with a disability or a sincerely held religious belief. In fact, some 72% of current and recent CEOs have indicated that they are open to vaccine mandates. You can also legally ask about vaccine status.

If COVID vaccine requirements are not something you are comfortable with, encouragement is the next best step. For example, make it clear that your CEO or executives will be getting the vaccine (or make like Jay Starkman, CEO of Engage PEO, who will share the video of his vaccination with employees). You should also provide them with access to factual information — such as the Center for Disease Control (CDC)’s vaccine center.

How to address vaccine hesitancy for employees who go back to work

While you may experience some pushback for COVID vaccine requirements or encouragements, Harvard Business Review advises the following:

  • Emphasize stories, not statistics. You may wish to provide a platform for those who are willing to share their story of loss or becoming ill with COVID-19 — a personal connection can make people more likely to opt for a vaccine.
  • Focus on the immediate benefits — these can be more tangible than the long-term benefits. Reinforce that a vaccine can allow
  • employees who go back to work to resume some activities with much less worry.
  • Stress that COVID vaccination requirements will be necessary for some activities, such as future domestic or international travel and, potentially, future jobs.
  • Ensure that employees do not suffer any financial loss from taking time away from work to get vaccinated. Offering PTO for recovery post-vaccine could be very beneficial, along with on-site vaccination as eligibility increases.
  • Reinforce that the vaccine has already been given to tens of millions of people with minimal negative results and that COVID-19 vaccines could cut hospitalizations and death from coronavirus by 99%.

Health and safety guidelines for the office of the future

One of the biggest challenges of going back to work after COVID-19 will be reconfiguring the office, considering 94% of organizations will now offer hybrid or work from home options. Gartner advises that firstly you need to ensure that all these workers have the equipment they need at home to work successfully, including hardware (58%), internet bill coverage (18%), office furniture (18%), phone bill coverage (12%), a once-off stipend (12%), or a monthly stipend (2%).

Setting up an office for long-term hybrid working

For employees who do go back to work in the office, the role of this space has changed. It’s expected that the office will mainly need to function as a workplace for employees who are not productive at home (19%), a secure workplace (17%), a space for cultivating innovations (17%), and a team meeting space (13%).

Harvard Business Review concurs that your office needs to be designed to work as a social anchor, a schoolhouse (for shared formal and informal training), and a hub for unstructured collaboration. To accomplish this, it’s advised to plan:

  • A mix of both open and closed-off areas in which people can collaborate or meet.
  • Create seating at areas of high traffic (such as staircases or elevators) to encourage informal interactions. Ensure these are well-spaced and well-ventilated.
  • Consider the acoustics of different areas. Small, quiet areas can be soundproofed, and open meeting areas can be louder to encourage socializing.
  • Think about monitoring which areas are being used often and which are not to maximize the space you have available. 
  • Managers should encourage employees who go back to work to spend time in common areas and attend social events. They can reinforce this by setting an example of doing it themselves.
  • Host in-office events such as ‘Wellness Wednesdays’ or virtual daily coffees to encourage informal interactions (you can even give hybrid or work from home employees the opportunity to dial into these).

Making communal areas safe

Before any employees return to work, you will need to ensure that your office space is physically safe. According to the CDC, these steps include:

  • Ensuring that your office space is safe for occupancy. This includes checking for mold growth, pests, and stagnant water.
  • Improving airflow by opening as many doors and windows as possible, along with turning on fans and checking your ventilation system.
  • Conducting a thorough hazard assessment to pinpoint where employees tend to be in close contact and how to address this.
  • Developing and distributing a communication plan that includes all maintenance, janitorial, and contract staff.
  • Modifying all seating plans and workstations to enable social distancing of six feet.
  • Where social distancing is not an option, think about installing physical barriers or transparent shields.
  • Within communal areas, use signs and tape markers to show where to stand. The CDC has a number of free posters you can print as visual cues.
  • Think about replacing high-touch items such as shared refreshments with single-use or pre-packaged items.
  • Staggering shifts, start times, and break times to reduce to encourage social distancing for employees who return to work.
  • Cleaning all high-touch surfaces at least once a day. Remind employees to wash hands with soap while also providing adequate hand sanitizer stations.

Creating policies on external visitors

To keep your employees safe, your return to work requirements should include guidelines around external visitors. For example, the CDC advises installing signs in parking areas and entrances as reminders to wear a face covering and adhere to social distancing. Meanwhile, KPMG suggests developing a COVID-19 declaration process for visitors to complete before entering the building, along with physical checks such as using temperature guns or infra-red gates at entry points.

Creating policies on reporting sickness

Going back to work after COVID-19 will also require a robust plan for reporting instances of both this virus and additional contagious viruses that may emerge in the future, including variants of COVID-19. The CDC advises businesses to consider daily in-person or virtual symptom and temperature screening before employees can enter the office. It is worth noting, however, that this will not catch asymptomatic or presymptomatic cases.

What should your return-to-work requirements include?

Your return-to-work requirements should address that when an employee does have symptoms, they must notify their supervisor, stay home, and be encouraged to get a test, along with any close contacts. These employees should not go back to work until healthcare providers are satisfied they have met the criteria to discontinue home isolation. Employees with a sick household member should notify their supervisor and follow the CDC-recommended precautions, such as staying home. The CDC also urges organizations to offer flexible, non-punitive sick leave to prevent staff outbreaks.

How much can employers ask about an employee’s illness?

According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, during a pandemic, employers may ask employees who call in sick if they are suffering from symptoms of the virus associated with it. In the case of COVID-19, employers can also take their employees’ temperatures, though this may not catch all cases. Employers may also ask for a certificate of fitness for duty or request a test for employees who go back to work after COVID-19.

Advice for employees reporting sickness

If you do need to report either a suspected or confirmed infection from COVID-19, Business Insider advises the following:

  • Stop going into work, effective immediately
  • Immediately notify your manager that you will not be able to attend work
  • Check your company’s policy on sick leave due to COVID-19. If they don’t have one, you can go by the Family First Coronavirus Response Act, which funds two weeks of paid sick leave.
  • Outline a plan for your current projects and how often you will be able to work remotely during this time (if at all). Share this with your manager or HR.

Considerations for business travel for going back to work after COVID-19

When it comes to business travel resuming, some experts have estimated that emerging technology may remove the need for the majority of it. Pre-pandemic, business travel accounted for 12% of the passenger base and 75% of airline profits, but now many employees are reluctant to fly. 

An interesting deep dive into COVID-19 safety on airlines by The New York Times showed that even with complicated airflow systems in place, flying still poses exposure risk. It advises thinking about the entire journey (such as eating unmasked in a restaurant) to prevent infection. If you are an employee who has been asked to travel, Forbes says you may be allowed to refuse to travel for work under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. For this reason, it’s also advised that employers be especially careful when asking employees to do so.

Further reading:

Creating Return to Work Guidelines


Return to Work: Employee First Steps