Employer Seeks Guidance on Reopening Office Amid COVID-19

Business people walking quickly

A reader emailed asking how she should start bringing people back into the workplace when restrictions regarding COVID-19 ease up.

“It is obvious to me they enjoy working from home and simply do not want to return. The problem is, do you force them back?” she asked. “Do you leave them at home, even though in my case I cannot track what they are doing and haven’t been able to gauge if they’re no longer needed full time — or maybe not even needed at all, since we have been able to send them home, where they’re not really doing a full-time job?”

Are you sure your employees prefer a virtual workspace?

That’s the first thing you should find out, according to Adrienne Cooper, chief people officer at FitSmallBusiness.com.

“Even though it may seem obvious to you that employees enjoy working from home, I would encourage you to send a survey to see how ready people are to return to work,” Cooper suggests. “There are sample questions for ‘readiness to return’ surveys that can help you do this. Based on the feedback, you can make informed decisions about working from homes and/or the office.”

Terry B. McDougall, CEO of Terry B. McDougall Coaching and author of “Winning the Game of Work: Career Happiness and Success on Your Own Terms,” also likes the idea of sending a survey.

“You may give them a few options — for example, working 100% remotely, 100% in the office and options in between,” she says. “I would guess that some people would probably welcome getting out of the house and back to the office for at least part of the week, but you won’t know unless you ask.”

With that information in hand, you’ll have to figure out the best way to move forward with bringing employees back to the physical office space.

Cooper isn’t a fan of a forced return.

“I strongly discourage this approach, especially if the reason is that you can’t tell if they are working,” she says. “To me, that sounds like more of a challenge with expectations, goal setting or role design.”

Instead, there are some questions you can ask to help you decide how to create policies related to virtual work arrangements as city and state restrictions regarding COVID-19 are lifted and also once we’re living and working in a post-pandemic world.

How do you measure success for your department?

McDougal says to consider if that has changed since work shifted to home office settings. He asks, “Do you meet with your staff regularly to go over their projects or work? Are there reports you run to gauge productivity or results? Can you meet with your staff or run these reports remotely?”

What are the pros and cons of letting staff continue working remotely?

Pros might include happier staff, higher staff retention and a reduction in real estate costs, while cons might be difficulty in supervising or training or lack of transparency, McDougal notes. “You may consider a hybrid policy that is a happy compromise where staff is allowed to work from home a certain number of days per week but is in the office on certain days for meetings or to report on their progress,” she suggests.

What work requires an on-site presence?

Cooper says managers and employees should make a list of work they think requires employees to be in the office.

“With a creative and critical eye, go through that list to imagine if any of the work could be completed in a way that doesn’t require being in the office,” she says. “Start experimenting with those ideas and clarify what success will look like when the work is attempted in the reimagined way.

If you decide an all-virtual work arrangement isn’t possible, explain why to your employees.

“Then you can get into a conversation about timing and frequency,” Cooper says. “Perhaps, the person can spend part of the week working in the office and part of the week working from home.”

Can you provide a safe workspace?

“What changes have you made to the physical office space, your policies and your work procedures to help ensure their safety and maintain productivity?” says Adam Calli, founder and principal consultant of Arc Human Capital and a part-time HR professional development instructor for George Mason University and the Society for Human Resource Management.

If you ultimately decide employees must return, make sure you give them plenty of time to make childcare and transportation arrangements. And discuss how you’ll handle employees who might need to have additional safety measures in place. These can include elderly staff, pregnant employees, disabled workers and anyone with a compromised immune system who is concerned about their increased risk.

“What will you do in these situations?” Calli asks. “You may need to make the business decision to trim staff. That’s happening a lot right now. Just be sure it’s a business decision, not discriminatory or biased. And if you’ve gotten a Paycheck Protection Program loan that is based on maintaining staffing levels or pay rates, include that into your assessment.”

(Article written by Kathleen Furore)