Top Considerations for Large Organizations Building a Return to Work Strategy

The COVID-19 guidelines in this article are reflective of the time of writing. To stay up to date with the latest CDC guidelines visit the official COVID-19 site.

2020 was the year of remote work. According to a Gartner report , 1.1 billion people worldwide worked from home last year, more than triple the 350 million who did so in 2019. As organizations of all sizes passed the one-year mark of making that significant shift, their HR professionals and executive teams remained hard at work preparing for the day they bring employees back to the office.

For many large employers, the fall season seems to be the ideal time to go back to the office, with 83% of employers stating they intend to start returning employees by the end of September 2021, according to a Business Group on Health survey. As organizations begin navigating office reopening plans, it’s important to keep employee health and safety top of mind. Developing thoughtful and detailed return plans will be driven by each employer’s unique population, but there are many considerations everyone should keep in mind while building a strategy for bringing people back to the office.

Employee Safety

As employees are coming back to the office, safety should be the number one priority. To emphasize that priority, employers should take steps to demonstrate that employee health and wellbeing is being focused on, such as considering these questions when developing a strategy.

Based on the community’s COVID-19 prevalence, is it safe to return?

If organizations are allowing unvaccinated employees to return to the office, infection rates should be steady and controlled in their area before bringing workers back and masks should be required to reduce transmission of asymptomatic and symptomatic infections. Even if workers are required to be fully vaccinated in order to return to the office, masks may also be recommended due to COVID-19 variants spreading across the country. To check the status of your local county’s COVID-19 prevalence, utilize the CDC tracker map.

Have CDC considerations and recommendations for organizations been reviewed?

As of July 27, 2021, the CDC has modified masking recommendations for vaccinated individuals. In areas of substantial or high infection rates, even fully vaccinated people should wear a mask indoors. This is in addition to physically distancing, washing hands, and staying home when sick. Employers located in areas with low and moderate transmissions rates may still permit vaccinated individuals to remove masks indoors but should keep an eye on local status as it may change quickly due to the recent spread of COVID-19 variants. Employers should consider the type of work, local vaccination rates, and COVID-19 infection prevalence before removing masking requirements.

Policies and Procedures

As employees begin to flow back into the workplace, employers will need to maintain safety by enforcing new policies and protocols. Each organization will have policies specific to their population, location, and industry, but these thought starters are a good place to start.

What will meetings look like?

Policies for meetings should be based on local prevalence of COVID-19. Some organizations may choose to allow meetings for small, fully vaccinated groups in private offices without masks. For meetings with a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated employees, implement a combination of precautions, such as requiring masks, enforcing social distancing, or improving ventilation in meeting spaces.

How many employees will return to the workplace?

First, form an idea of how many workers want to return by sending out surveys asking for opinions on returning to the workplace. From there, it becomes easier to determine if an employer’s space is capable of seating all those who wish to return or if they’ll need to overcome capacity restrictions.

Are employees required to be vaccinated to enter the workplace?

Organizations can legally require vaccination to return to campus, but that decision rests on the leadership team. If moving forward with requiring vaccination, consider hosting a vaccination event on campus to make getting the shot more convenient for employees. It will also be important to consider what accommodations will be made for those who cannot be vaccinated due to medical contraindications or those who are immunocompromised.

Once vaccinated, employers will also need to decide if and how they’ll verify each employee’s vaccination. Many organizations have partnered with select mobile apps that make it easy and secure for employees to provide their verification.

What is the policy for employees entering the building?

There are a number of steps employers can put in place to help facilitate safe entry to the office. Screening is a popular choice, with 71% of large employers reporting they are screening or will screen employees for fever before allowing them to enter the office, according to the Business Group on Health survey. For organizations allowing a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated employees back, a smart strategy may be implementing a mask mandate depending on local transmission rates along with a twice-weekly rapid antigen testing program for those who are unvaccinated to keep them and other employees safe.

Action and Next Steps

After employers carefully think through how to keep safety top of mind and discuss which new policies and procedures make sense for their population, the next step is executing their plans.

What does the facilities team need to do to prepare?

Many new safety measures, such as optimizing building ventilation, adding position markers at entrances and exits, installing hand hygiene stations, and cleaning workplaces daily, will fall on an organization’s facilities team. These precautions can help mitigate risk of infection, but it’s important to involve the facilities team in the planning process to ensure they have ample time to complete key items before employees come back.

How will new policies and return to work plans be communicated to employees?

An organization’s communications team should be another key player in the planning process. Clear communication is key to help employees feel informed and confident in return to work plans. Be diligent in communicating new information as soon as available to give them time to make arrangements for things like childcare, which many working parents will need to re-establish once back in the office. Communications should also address any concerns and clearly articulate new policies and expectations prior to the established reopening date. The more information they have, the more comfortable employees will be when coming back.

Remember, there is no easy button for creating a plan that brings workers back to the office. There are many factors to consider and each employer’s strategy will be unique based on their teams, location, and industry. As the pandemic continues to evolve, adapting and implementing these plans isn’t something organizations should have to navigate alone.

Over the past 16 months, Premise Health has served as an important partner for clients across industries, geographies, and sizes to create solutions that keep workforces safe, regardless of where they’re working from. To proactively support clients and members, we created our pandemic readiness product to provide scalable, expert-led solutions in all facets of responding to a pandemic. If you’re looking for a partner to help safely bring your employees back to the office, click here to learn more.

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