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Left in a hurry, returning very slowly: Employers tell us about their back-to-work plans and hurdles.

Left in a hurry, returning very slowly: Employers tell us about their back-to-work plans and hurdles.

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These days, very few employers say, “We’ve got this!” about their return to work plans following the disruption caused by the pandemic. COVID-19 rapidly drove employees out of most workplaces by mid-March in the US. Yet it’s clear the return is going to progress at a more deliberate pace, as areas of the country open and employers put safety protocols in place.

Much to be done

Following a May 28 Buck webinar on returning to the workplace, just 5% of surveyed attendees said their return-to-work protocols are “completely buttoned down.” Exactly half cited “much work to be done.” Another 38% said they’re “nearly there” and 6% said they’ve barely started on their protocols and planning.

Meanwhile, major employers such as Google and Facebook have announced the intent to allow employees to work from home until at least the end of the year. Many employers are choosing summer dates to gradually bring employees back in the office, without rigid timetables. One survey cited just 10% to 15% of a work group returning in the first wave. The varying timing stems from the differing pace of local openings across the country, employer cautions about readiness and potential liabilities, and employee reticence or fears.

Tough questions

On employer readiness, respondents’ toughest back-to-the-workplace challenges were several. Nearly one in four are grappling with two issues:

  • Which employees to bring back, how and when, and
  • Maintaining workplace health and safety

In addition, 9% were struggling with testing policies and procedures, 6% with screening and privacy concerns, and only 5% felt troubled by employee refusals to return to work or to follow health protocols. But the largest number, one in three, said they were experiencing all these challenges.

Employers and employees may fear a subsequent next wave of infections and potential liability risks for the employer. Some employers anticipate ongoing remote work, likely to cheers of some employees happy to avoid their commutes or the dismay of those tired of social isolation.

Getting to “thumbs up”

While “We’ve got this” seems an elusive goal for employers given the uncertainties surrounding COVID-19, there are key steps to move closer to enable a return to the workplace. Many employers have produced extensive, highly detailed manuals. While these tomes help satisfy lawyers and facilities manager needs, what about the understanding of the average employee who needs to know what’s expected, why, and what he or she needs to do?

The basics for any return-to-the workplace toolkit should include:

  • Decisions as to who will return and when: Will employees have a say, whether they’re eager to get out of their homes or fearful to put their health or that of loved ones at risk by potential exposure on the job?
  • Safety protocols: From health question checks to distancing protocols, what will be expected for employees returning onsite? Will they need to download an app? Take their temperature at home or at the worksite? Documenting steps they must take reinforces the shared responsibility for maintaining their own and coworker, business partner, and customer health.
  • Worker education on safety protocols: Will workstations and workflow change? Will some areas be off limits (e.g., water fountains or shared coffee pots)? Will the cafeteria operate differently? If part of a larger building complex, what provisions are in place to ensure all other workers in the area are observing safety – beyond sanitation procedures to air filtering, anti-bacterial surfaces such as elevator buttons, and touchless doors and restroom facilities?
  • Facts as known about COVID-19 transmission: Do employees know about asymptomatic transmission? How easily it’s transmitted through droplets that are worse when aerosolized? Do they know tips to stay safe when off the job, to protect themselves, their family, and when back on the job, their coworkers, business partners, and customers? 
  • Holistic resources (including physical, mental and financial health): Are ready answers available to address concerns? What if I have a family member at home with underlying health conditions? If I fear I’m becoming sick, what do I do, where can I get tested, and who will pay for it? If I feel nervous and stressed, who can I call for help? If I or a family member is hurting financially, what can we do?
  • Workforce separations: And finally, if workforce actions are required, such as a furlough or reductions in staff, how will those decisions be made and how will employees be treated? In many industries, the economic realities will dictate these answers even more so than the pandemic itself.

Making it easy for employees to say, “We got this.”

Employees need to find trusted information from their employer, to feel safe while on the job and to take informed responsibility for their actions both on and off the job. A lengthy manual won’t be read thoroughly or remembered. A lengthy poster on the wall won’t do it. Focused training and education sites and materials can keep employees up to date.

In addition, the latest guidance from the CDC or their state or even the company may change as often as weekly. That means education is needed as the return-to-work phases begin and must evolve as new information causes changes in policy and protocols. Easy-to-use online channels such as mobile-ready, no password-needed microsites and pop-up sites can capture and rapidly update needed information.

Getting it, play by play

Employer COVID-19 playbooks continue to evolve in responding to the pandemic and returning employees in good and sustainable good health to the worksite. Each employer’s situation is unique, but informed and flexible checklists, documentation, and employee education plans can help achieve the thumbs-up needed for employees to return to the workplace with greater confidence.

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