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How to Return to Work Safely — Employers’ Guide

Key Takeaways

1. The world of work has evolved considerably in recent years, accelerated by the COVID-19 global pandemic. Workplace norms and practices have changed radically in a short space of time. 

2. Companies large and small are now rethinking how they return to work safely after the lockdowns and widespread remote working of 2020-21.

3. Remote working is likely to remain mainstream even after office returns go ahead. Hybrid working could become the dominant working mode in the future.

4. A well designed and implemented ‘return to work’ policy can help businesses and employees to return to the office environment in a COVID-safe and efficient way.

COVID-19 continues to influence places and ways of working as 2021 approaches its end. Looking towards 2022, several high-profile companies have been re-thinking return to work policies with realism, staff safety and productivity in mind. Technology, social attitudes and corporate norms have all evolved considerably in the last decade, accelerated by the global pandemic. One way or another, the working world is changing permanently with the times. 

Microsoft has indefinitely postponed return to work in its US offices. PWC has announced that it will allow 40,000+ US employees to work from home anywhere in the country.  Meanwhile Amazon, Facebook and Google all plan an office return at some point in 2022. Where companies of this scale lead, others are likely to follow. Businesses of any size will need appropriate policies to enable safe return to the workplace.  

Impact of Covid-19 on the Workplace Internationally

The impact of COVID-19 on the workplace has been broad and deep in countries all over the world. From remote working to virtual working tools, the possibilities and norms are changing around where we work, how we work and when we work. Consider:

  • Workplace
  • The abrupt shutdown of offices and many other workplaces in spring 2020 brought about a radical change to physical work location for many staff. According to a Pew Research survey of US adults, while only 20% worked at home pre-pandemic, by December 2020 this figure was 71%. Further longer-term impacts may emerge as companies give up some unused office spaces permanently in order to save money.  
  • Use of technology
  • The COVID-19 pandemic hit the world at time where video conferencing and online collaborative working tools were functional and widely available, but not completely mainstreamed across all levels of business. Lockdown meant that everyone, even the most senior managers, busiest staff and IT-refuseniks, suddenly had to work with some combination of  Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack or similar platforms and tools on a daily basis.  
  • Home location
  • Normalization of remote working has given workers more freedom in where they choose to live. There is now a trend in movement from expensive cities to towns and rural locations with higher quality of life and lower living costs. These “Zoom towns” may even offer moving incentives to boost local economies. Remote working overseas has become a possibility (although local laws and tax rules should be considered carefully). 
  • Attitudes
  • With workplace and technological changes, corporate and wider societal attitudes about traditional and modern working practices were also exposed to the light in 2020/21. Remote working was previously often seen as the preserve of those with caring responsibilities at home, or for employees without ambition. Now this effective two-tier system has been challenged and may change permanently, placing home and office workers on an equal footing. 

 

Why return to the office?

While the pandemic has shown us that many office-based jobs can be done effectively from home in the short to medium term, this doesn’t necessarily mean that remote working is a sustainable or desirable long term option for every company or staff member. There are all kinds of reasons why both businesses and employees might wish to get back to their old desks, for example:

  • Human interaction
  • The value of face-to-face human interaction is huge, from team building and melding a corporate identity, to successful collaborative working. Screen interactions may keep all of these things ticking over in times of crisis, but will never be a like-for-like replacement in terms of value added. 
  • IT and commercial security
  • Having the majority of staff working in different locations, with their own wifi connections, and potentially even on their own computers, multiplies the risks of information leaks, hacks and losses significantly. Even where remote staff are issued with secure IT equipment and VPNs, there are still commercial security risks from the potential presence of unknown family, friends and neighbours in an employee’s  home working environment.
  • Work station health and safety
  • Staff working at home often lack a professional work station set up, and may even be working from sofas or beds, increasing the risk of developing repetitive strain injuries or other occupational health conditions. Some firms may have arranged transport of ergonomic chairs and desks for use by staff at home but not every employee will have space for office-sized furniture.  
  • Healthy work/life boundaries
  • Working hours can be blurred when based at home, without the physical and psychological cut off points of entering and leaving a distinct working environment each day. Old manager perceptions of home working as a ‘slacker’ option may also still linger. This can lead to staff working through lunch, checking emails at midnight and being ‘on’ 24/7 with all the associated risks of burnout.

How to return to work safely

Arranging for staff to return to work safely,  is a process to be supported rather than a single ‘decision and switch’. The first step is to plan the office return thoroughly and realistically in the light of both business needs and staff health and well-being, inviting input from employees and listening to their thoughts.

After planning, a well-designed ‘return to work’ protocol can guide staff smoothly back into the workplace. Your policy should help staff to feel safe about returning while balancing business needs and staff health and well-being.

Flexibility is important, recognizing that personal health risks and family responsibilities vary between employees, and that across an organization there is usually no need for a one-size-fits all approach on office return.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration have published a helpful guide for US companies wondering how employees can return to work safely, setting out guiding principles alongside practical implementation examples. The Government of Ireland have issued a similar guide for their own businesses.

Drawing on these and equivalent local publications for your company’s return to work policy, you may want to include guidance on a range of areas such as:

  • Health and safety
  • This includes:

    • reporting, monitoring and communication of COVID cases amongst employees

    • vaccination requirements

    • self-isolation and quarantine measures

    • adequate cleaning of surfaces and sufficient ventilation of air

    • use of masks, other PPE, and social distancing in the work environment.

  • Remote and flexible working
  • This could cover:
    • if necessary, a restatement of your Remote Working Policy

    • hybrid work — combining home and office working

    • issue and use of appropriate IT equipment for office, home and flexible working

    • continued use of video conference and online collaborative working tools

    • inclusion of all staff regardless of work location.

  • Impact on other related corporate policies
  • The impact could refer to:

    • core working hours and expectations around work at other times

    • meetings and public events

    • stakeholder engagement

    • work travel and transport.

Alternatives to returning to the office 

Not every worker will either need or want to return to the office. Some may be more productive working from home and others may be held back by health issues or family responsibilities. A large group of people may simply want more flexibility in setting their place or times of work.

With the right management, communication and IT, a range of alternatives to full-time office working can often be accommodated as part of a productive and functional business. 

Remote working

Some jobs can be done entirely remotely, or with only very occasional attendance at the office. As well as suiting the remote workers themselves, there can be real benefits for the business.

Certain roles may be more productive when working remotely (e.g. coding and IT development jobs) and others may involve so much time with clients that it’s irrelevant whether they are office or home-based (e.g. some consultancy work). Recruiting international remote workers gives you an immediate presence in that country with the benefits of local intelligence, timezone and contacts. 

Another benefit to allowing at least a proportion of permanent home workers is the possibility of permanently reducing a company’s office footprint and saving significant money on premises.

If some or all roles are made permanently remote, provision should be made for correct working equipment to be issued to employees (desk, chair, computer etc..) and set up for use at home. Managers should build connection and engagement with remote workers into their normal routines and ensure that good practice is followed for successful onboarding of new remote workers.

Hybrid working 

Hybrid working, where staff split their time between remote and office working, has wide appeal to many employers and employees alike. It may allow the best of both worlds: less commuting, more flexibility, more in-person collaboration and team building etc..  

Alternating shifts and teams 

Dividing the workforce into separate teams or shifts can help mitigate the risk of COVID completely stopping work. For example, half of the workforce might be designated Team A and the other half Team B. Team A would return to the office for two weeks (or some other period) while team B worked at home. They would then swap and continue to alternate.

With Team A and Team B never working together on-site there would be greater resilience to COVID outbreaks spreading through the whole business.

Graduated return 

There can be benefits for both businesses and staff from bringing staff back to the office gradually in terms of time, numbers or both. Working 1-2 days in the office, or bringing back only certain teams first can allow stress testing of new COVID-safe protocols and practices before the majority return. It can also allow staff to slowly refamiliarize themselves with the office environment and reduce overall stress.

Conclusion 

It appears that in the near future world of work, returning full-time and permanently to the office will be only one possibility amongst several other equal options. At Horizons we understand the different modes of working available, as well as the challenges of ensuring employees return to work safely. We can help support businesses returning to the office, those continuing to work remotely, and those developing a deliberate hybrid model. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Cases will vary but usually the two decisive factors to be balanced are the needs of the business and the physical and mental health of the employee. Managers should ensure that staff are aware of the latest official advice on COVID incidence and transmission for their country, and the company return to work policy.

If an employee is highly vulnerable to COVID (or COVID-linked anxiety), you should consider allowing them to work permanently from home. If a non-vulnerable employee is refusing to enter the office but still fully productive at home, a gradual return might be negotiated to overcome their fears.

Whether at home or in the office, if an employee is not doing their contracted work, then your HR team should seek to resolve this in line with relevant policies, local law and international labor law

You should ensure that any instructions or guidance you give for employees returning to work after testing positive for COVID-19, are compatible with local health authority requirements and guidance. Local requirements for self-isolation and quarantine vary between countries and over time, depending on level of outbreaks, vaccinations and dominant variants. Your internal policies will therefore need to be updated regularly.

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