How To Decide When To Reopen: 5 Questions For HR

by Rebecca Symmank on December 3, 2020
How to Plan A Safe Return To Work Now And In The Future

If you’re a human resources leader, this year has been especially challenging. You’ve been busy helping employees adapt to the new normal, hiring remotely, and trying to maintain a strong company culture in a distributed workforce.

Now, as your leadership team considers your return-to-work plan, you play a key role in deciding when the time is right. After working from home for most of the year, surveys show many employees are anxious to return to the office.

Several coronavirus vaccines are close to receiving emergency use authorization from the FDA, but officials say widespread distribution is still at least several months away.

In the meantime, COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are reaching record levels.

While there are no easy answers, Gartner recommends HR leaders start by considering these questions.

5 considerations for your return-to-work plan

1. What do your country and state guidelines say?

According to Gartner’s research, most organizations will set up a cross-functional committee that will deliberate over the decision to reopen. Nearly all these committees will start by considering government policies (93%) and orders from public health officials (85%).

In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines allow individual organizations to make their own decisions on when to reopen offices. However, they offer detailed recommendations for developing a return-to-work plan including:

  • Conducting a thorough hazard assessment
  • Conducting daily wellness screenings or self-assessments
  • Maintaining a physical distance of at least six feet between workspaces
  • Erecting transparent barriers to separate employees when physical distancing is not possible
  • Redefining the use of common areas, such as small meeting rooms and break rooms
  • Improving the building ventilation system

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has also issued detailed guidelines for offices returning to work. For instance, OSHA recommends offices should plan to reopen in three phases, starting with essential personnel.

2. How critical is it for employees to work in the office?

The pandemic has inadvertently led to offices experimenting with remote work for long periods of time. As a result, both employees and companies have grown increasingly comfortable with this model.

A recent Gartner poll showed 48% of employees will likely work remotely at least part of the time after COVID-19 compared to 30% before the pandemic. While organizations expect to increase the percentage of employees who work remotely, it will still be rare for the majority of the workforce to be fully remote. Only 10% of organizations expect over half of their workforce to be remote full time after the outbreak ends.

So how do you decide who comes into the office and who works from home? Employees who are at a higher risk of suffering serious complications from COVID-19 should continue working remotely if possible. That includes employees who are 60 and older, those with chronic lung or heart conditions, and those with compromised immune systems. To avoid discrimination, healthcare consultants Jeff Levin-Scherz and Deana Allen of Willis Towers Watson recommend asking employees to state that they feel uncomfortable returning to work without requiring them to disclose why.

You can also assess each employee’s role and function, evaluating for criticality and the need for face-to-face interaction. McKinsey suggests you classify employee roles into four segments:

  • Fully remote
  • Hybrid remote (working part-time in the office and part-time at home)
  • Hybrid remote by exception (mostly working from the office but occasionally working remotely)
  • On site only

Once you complete this exercise, it’s easy to decide how to stagger employee re-entry into the workplace.

See how iOFFICE makes it easy to develop a return-to-work plan in phases.

3. How do your employees feel about returning?

While some employees have concerns about returning to work due to health reasons, others simply have preferences.

Employees with long commutes may have realized how much time and money they can save working remotely.

Others feel they are more productive without the distractions of the office. However, if you’re concerned that offering the option to continue working remotely will lead to a mass exodus from the workplace, consider the data.

The most recent Gensler survey found only 12% of employees want to work from home full time. The vast majority (70%) want to spend at least part of their week working in the office.

Why do employees want to return? The biggest reason is a desire for in-person interaction. Fifty-five percent of survey respondents said it’s harder to collaborate with colleagues remotely. Others say they have more distractions at home and it’s harder to separate their work lives from their personal lives.

Continuing to offer employees the option to work remotely can make it easier to attract and retain top talent. In a Deloitte survey conducted before the pandemic, 94% of employees said they wanted flexible work options, including the option to work remotely, but almost a third of them were afraid it would hurt their professional growth.

A company culture that supports remote work can help you bring in talent from more diverse geographic regions.

But it’s not enough to just tell your workforce they can work remotely anytime. You need to consider how you will make it easy for employees to embrace a hybrid workplace. For instance:

  • Do you need to implement new technology to improve remote collaboration?
  • Will you offer subsidies to help remote employees purchase home office supplies or upgrade their internet connection?
  • How will you train managers to support distributed teams?
  • Do you have an easy way for employees to reserve desks and rooms when they’re in the office?
  • How will you make sure remote employees feel included in company events you have traditionally hosted in person?

All this can make a big difference in your workplace experience, whether employees are working on-site, at home, or a combination of both.

4. How will you redesign your office for safety?

To keep employees safe while collaborating in person, you will need to rethink your office design and policies.

That includes:

  • Moving workspaces farther apart
  • Limiting capacity in meeting rooms and enclosed spaces
  • Reclassifying small conference rooms as individual spaces
  • Adding signage to remind employees to maintain appropriate physical distance when gathering in common areas
  • Requiring employees to sanitize shared desks and surfaces after each use

Moving every workspace six feet apart is one way to maintain a safer workplace, but it may not be the best long-term solution. For many workplaces, it means operating at a significantly reduced capacity. That means you’ll also need a way to limit the number of people who come into the office each day.

Counting the number of badge swipes can help you determine when you’re approaching capacity limits, but it doesn’t allow you to accurately predict how many people are planning to arrive each day.

Using a visitor management system that requires pre-registration is a better alternative. You can require employees to pre-register themselves for each day they plan to be in the office that week so you’ll have a more accurate estimate of who will be there.

You can also ask employees to complete a short wellness screening when they register to eliminate the need for pre-screening upon arrival.

5. How will you notify employees of a COVID-19 exposure?

California recently passed a law requiring employers to notify employees of any potential COVID-19 exposure in the workplace, beginning in January.

They will have one business day to notify employees and two days to notify public health officials.

Other states could follow California’s lead, effectively making employers mandated reporters. Whether or not it’s required, contact tracing is something the majority of employees say they expect, according to a PwC pulse survey in May.

However, Thomson Reuters cautions any contact tracing solutions must be HIPAA compliant and should not extend beyond the walls of the workplace. Your workplace may use data from badge swipes or a visitor management system to identify people who were in the office during the period of potential exposure. You should have a plan for notifying employees while maintaining the confidentiality of individuals.

Preparing for the new frontier with iOFFICE

While there are no easy answers, the right technology can take the guesswork out of your return-to-work plan.

iOFFICE’s space planning feature, Space-Right™, allows workplace leaders to automatically reconfigure floor plans by adjusting a simple slider. You can set your distancing parameters, and the algorithm will generate a new floor plan with appropriate distance between workspaces.

You can also use the software to adjust seating arrangements or assign employees to staggered shifts. When the threat of COVID-19 recedes, you can just as easily adjust your workplace design to accommodate more people.

iOFFICE’s touchless visitor management system also makes it easy for employees to pre-register themselves or their guests using a mobile app.

And our Hummingbird workplace app makes it easy for employees to reserve desks or rooms and receive notifications from you in the event of a potential exposure.

We realize this isn’t just a temporary “new normal.” We’ve entered a new frontier, with new expectations for safety and flexibility that are likely to last long after we have widespread vaccinations. Fortunately, our solutions are built to adapt so they can support your workplace for years to come.

Get a 15 minute consultation and we’ll help you start planning your safe return.


Rebecca Symmank

As a member of the Business Development team for iOFFICE, Rebecca is spirited and is quick to take initiative. Previously a customer and daily user of the IWMS provider, she has extensive experience on both the front and back end structure of the product. Rebecca's enthusiasm for facilities management and her tangible experience in the field give her an unprecedented understanding and perception of iOFFICE customers. Rebecca is able to relate to organizations implementing on IWMS, and has a unique perspective on what makes the experience a success.

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