Employee Experience
10 min read

5 things to keep in mind when returning to the workplace during COVID-19


Sophia Lee

Writer, Culture Amp

Reading Time: 10 minutes

As businesses and offices being to open in countries around the world, companies in the U.S. are starting to plan for a return to the workplace. 

This is a critical time for organizations to survey employees. Surveys provide insight into how teams are feeling and what the top concerns are with regard to an upcoming transition. While we certainly don’t have all the answers, we want to call attention to the most important questions you need to have answered before your employees go back to the office. 

How to use surveys to prepare for your return to work 

We recently released a free Return Readiness Template to help HR leaders track, measure, and manage what matters as companies begin the recovery process. The purpose of this survey is to help you understand how your people are feeling, what concerns they may have about returning to the workplace, and help guide what an effective HR strategy might look like. The survey can help you answer important questions, such as: 

  • Do employees juggling caregiver responsibilities need additional support?
  • Do employees feel safe about returning to the workplace and what safety measures can help alleviate their concerns?
  • Do employees want to continue working remotely and do they feel this will be effective for them and their team?

What we’re measuring with employee surveys

While many of the Culture Amp survey templates focus on the overall organization, our Return Readiness Template focuses more on the individual and the employee experience. To ensure we cover the topics that are front of mind for leaders and HR at this time, we collaborated with several of our global customers who are currently transitioning back to the workplace. Focus areas include: 

  • Overall return readiness
  • Support
  • Wellbeing
  • Safety
  • Remote working
  • Concerns

Understanding the overall employee sentiment across each of these areas can help inform not only what a return to work plan might look like, but also whether existing policies should be reviewed to address the most pressing concerns. 

Timing

We recommend conducting this survey before employees transition back to the workplace. This will enable you to collect feedback and data to help inform your HR strategy. It’ll also put measures in place to help support employees as they transition back to the workplace. 

However, make sure you don’t launch the survey too early. It should be launched when you’re ready to start making decisions around the return to work. If you launch before that, you risk having the current guidance and information around COVID-19 restrictions change, which may alter employees’ attitudes and potentially misinform your return to work plans. 

5 things to keep in mind before your team returns to the workplace during COVID-19

#1 How will you prioritize the health and safety of your employees?

Every company should prioritize employee wellbeing as they return to the office. There are many facets of health and safety to plan for. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself while creating your strategy. They will help you keep your employees protected during the transition.

  • Do employers need to provide personal protective equipment? Personal protective equipment (PPE) is equipment worn to minimize exposure to a variety of hazards. PPE is necessary for a safe transition back to the workplace. We strongly encourage companies to provide resources like masks, hand sanitizer stations, and antiseptic wipes for employees. If these are not available, you put the burden of locating PPE on each individual and that can add to the stress of returning to work. 
  • How do you conduct health screenings at the office? Many companies are considering screening employees when they return to the office. This is a proactive measure to keep everyone in the office safe, and will also help you detect potential illness before it spreads. These health screenings can include a verbal check – to see if anyone is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, like fever or a cough – as well as a physical check that involves taking workers’ temperatures. The CDC provides additional guidelines on how to safely conduct screenings for workers. 
  • How do we educate employees about hygiene best practices? The CDC recommends promoting healthy hygiene practices at work. This includes thorough hand-washing, wearing masks, social distancing, and regularly wiping down work surfaces with antiseptic wipes. Employers should consider creating training resources that outline this information. You can also host a Zoom training session to increase employee engagement and get everyone aligned before going back to the office.

Finally, there’s another big question employers should be asking themselves: is it necessary to return to the physical workplace at all? Even if companies can go back to the office, that doesn’t mean they have to. 

Our data shows that people are adjusting well to remote work. Given this, it’s worth considering whether returning to a physical office is necessary for your team – especially for employees who have vulnerable immune systems. While these aren’t questions we can answer on your behalf, this is a good opportunity to rethink how we work altogether instead of simply returning “back to normal.”

#2 What are the legal implications of returning to the workplace? 

There are many legal complexities employers will have to navigate as they map out the return to work. We recommend that your HR strategy is reviewed by legal counsel to ensure the company and employees are protected. There are a few key legal issues to pay attention to: 

  • How can we be mindful about discrimination? Employers need to be aware of potential discrimination issues during the transition. For instance, if you’re going to screen employees for COVID-19, you must screen all employees – not just cherry pick who should be tested based on one individual’s personal biases. Similarly, you need to have a plan for other complicated scenarios. This includes: responding to an employee who is diagnosed with COVID-19; letting go of employees who don’t want to return to work; and dealing with people who refuse to follow safety protocols in the office. 
  • What if an employee refuses to return to work? You should be prepared for a situation in which employees refuse to go back to work. This could be due to their perception of how safe it is to be back in the office. Also, it may be the case that employees can’t return to work if they don’t have a reliable childcare option, or if they live with someone who has a vulnerable immune system and is at higher risk for contracting COVID-19. Regardless of the reason, it’s critical to prioritize employee wellbeing. Work with them to find a solution that works for both parties. 
  • How do we handle the return to work across different offices? If you have a global presence, you may want to create separate plans for each office. Since employee experience will vary depending on the office location, it’s important to work with legal counsel to understand the restrictions and guidelines of each city, state, or country.

#3 How do you need to prepare the physical workspace?

If the majority of your employees are returning to the workplace, you need to think about how to adapt the physical office to be compliant with the restrictions due to COVID-19. Below are potential accommodations you should consider to ensure the safety and health of employees: 

  • Do we need a new office layout? Now is the time to reimagine what the physical workspace can look like. This may include changes like properly spaced desks and signage to ensure people don’t get too close to one another. It may help to look to organizations like Cushman & Wakefield, as well as companies in China, to see what solutions they’re using. 
  • How can we establish an effective cleaning/disinfecting process? No matter how many people you’re planning to have back in the office, or how frequently they’ll be there, there needs to be a strict cleaning regiment in place. In addition to encouraging employees to wipe down their own workspaces, check to see if your office building offers regular cleaning services. If not, set up your own arrangements and provide whoever is cleaning with the appropriate PPE.
  • Should we introduce diverse working options? As we mentioned before, it’s worth asking yourself whether a return to a physical office is necessary. If you’re not willing or able to go fully remote, keep in mind that there are many other work setups. You can have all of your employees part-time remote. Similarly, you can keep your office space open and give employees the option to go in if they choose to utilize it for important meetings or team-building exercises.

#4 What is the timeline for the return to the workplace?  

Most companies are not planning to send everyone back to the workplace at the same time. Instead, your leadership team is likely thinking of a staggered approach to phase employees back into the office over a period of weeks or months. This raises questions around what the overall timeline should look like. To answer these questions, here’s what we recommend:

Question: What are the most urgent needs of the organization?

If you’ve determined that you absolutely need employees back at the office, define your organization’s top priorities. Do you need your manufacturing workers to return and resume the production lines? Or do you need to get your legal counsel and HR teams in the office to properly set up the space? Figure out what you need before you create your plan. 

Question: How do we prioritize which employees to send back first? 

Once you have identified business priorities, it’s time to take employee priorities into account. To take the most objective and health-focused approach, we recommend following the guidelines outlined by the CDC. They explain how business owners can determine which employees are ready to return to work, when, and under what conditions – depending largely on their current and previous health status. While it’s important to take a structured approach, you also want to take the personal requests of your employees seriously. For instance, if one of your employees has a sick parent or child, they shouldn’t be in the first wave of people to go back to the office. 

Question: How far ahead do we need to plan?

Even if you plan to have all employees back in the office within three months, it’s important for your HR strategy to look beyond that. Are you hiring more people? Will you be staying in the same office space? Do you have any plans to eventually allow more employees to work remotely? These are all important considerations for the future that should be built into your short-term plans. 

#5 How can you be proactive moving forward? 

While we hope everyone’s return to work goes smoothly, there’s a chance that things won’t go exactly as planned. It’s important to be realistic about the possibility of having an outbreak or facing employee resistance. It’s in every company’s best interest to be proactive and prepared.

To minimize the potential negative impact of returning to work, companies can:

  • Prepare for potential obstacles: Even when you do everything right, sometimes things go wrong. It’s critical to prepare for these moments instead of hoping they don’t happen. Meet with the legal and leadership teams to plan out the worst-case scenario and determine what the company’s response will be if it manifests.
  • Keep employees informed of your plans: Don’t map out an HR strategy in silos then expect employees to be aligned with your suggestions. Instead, involve them in the process, collect their feedback through surveying, and make sure their voices are heard. Your employees are the ones who will be most impacted by going back to work, so they should have an active role in shaping the transition back. 

While it can feel overwhelming to think about returning to work, there are tools – like employee surveys – that can provide direction.


We encourage organizations to use our free Return Readiness Template to help track, measure, and manage the issues that are most important to your employees

Access it here