AGS Logo: Back to COVID-19 Homepage
Bringing workers back to the workplace graphic

Bringing Workers Back to the Workplace: When, Who & How

Plans to reenter the workplace should balance the need to mitigate economic impacts on employers and workers against the risks of coronavirus’ resurgence.

According to an April 24 survey by law firm Blank Rome LP, more than 73% of companies have not created a return-to-workplace (RTW) strategy. But with some US states and countries around the globe beginning to lift stay-at-home orders, businesses are starting to prepare by having meaningful conversations about what it will take – based on industry, location, and workforce mix. There is a lot to think about, and many moving targets are involved in successfully returning workers to facilities. Our goal is to raise awareness about topics to consider, from employee well-being and safety precautions to balancing the concerns of full-time employees and contingent workers, as you begin thinking about who should come back to the workplace, how, and when.

Can You/Should You Return?

Certainly, there are local and state government and public health entities to monitor for guidance. For example, on April 13, the World Health Organization (WHO), released six guidelines for countries considering whether to lift containment restrictions. Those steps revolve around things like virus transmission control; capacity to test, isolate, and treat every case and trace every contact; preventative measures in the workplace; and education for communities.

Ultimately, plans should be well-informed and based on the data coming from the region(s) and the locality where the workers are located. They should also be compassionate, communicated repeatedly, and flexible to meet evolving needs.

Who Should Come Back?

The next step is to decide who should return. Prioritize who you need back in the workplace in terms of essential and non-essential workers. Consider the nature and function of each role and the person’s ability to return safely. Determine the minimum staff needed to sustain operations in case of absenteeism. Think about whether seniority will play a role in the order of bringing back furloughed workers. Additionally, if you have a unionized workforce, adhering to specific requirements in the collective bargaining agreement and other union contracts before workers return will help to ensure health and safety and to avoid litigation with the union.

One approach we have seen some clients take is to survey worker populations to gauge their ability to return to the workplace. Letting workers self-select or opt-in reassures them you are a company that is sympathetic to their concerns or anxieties about returning to their pre-pandemic, physical work locations. It also demonstrates your understanding of potential familial obligations that may need consideration for some form of accommodation (e.g., balancing work and childcare while schools are out and camps are closed), as well as of vulnerable populations, including those with underlying health conditions like chronic lung disease, obesity, or asthma.

Of note, a March 31 survey by pay-equity software company Syndio found 14% of women are considering quitting their jobs because of the family demands created by the coronavirus pandemic; 11% of men have considered doing the same. These results, covered in Fortune a few weeks ago, show that the pandemic could have long-term impacts on gender pay gap increases for working mothers, causing lost earnings that will compound over time following time away from the workforce.

Ultimately, the businesses that will be hailed for getting it right during the pandemic will likely be those who provide some workforce accommodations. Being flexible, within reason, can go a long way toward boosting employee morale, loyalty, and positive brand sentiment, while also taking account of workers’ well-being. All practices should be transparent and implemented consistently in accordance with all applicable employment laws and guidelines. 

How Should Workers Come Back?

Analyst firm Forrester reported results from a March 19 survey in which nearly half (42%) of all US workers were afraid to go back to work, up from 29% just two weeks previously. (One could assume the figure is higher now in early May at the time of this writing.) Why are they afraid? About 60% cited a fear of coronavirus spread, and 40% reported the risk of exposure.

How people feel about coming back will undoubtedly vary by job location (e.g., if they are in a high-impact area like New York City) and job type. But there are several steps companies can take to alleviate these fears, as we are seeing in early-stage planning by our customers.

  • Phased-in Approach: Bringing workers back in groups over time can limit spread, as well as provide a testing ground for whether your preparations are adequate and if you need to adjust anything before your entire workforce returns. An example could look like this, starting:

    • Week 1: Core team

    • Week 2: 25% of workers

    • Week 4: 50% of workers

    • Week 6: 75% of workers

    • Week 8: 100% of workers

  • Split Shifts: This tactic helps reduce numbers on-site, promote physical distancing, and allow time for cleaning between shifts, which is especially important in cases of shared workstations. The goal here is to reduce the risk of a second wave of virus spread. Having smaller populations in your facility at any given time can effectively limit the number of people entering a building, clocking in, using an elevator or breakroom, working in a tight space like a lab, or eating lunch.

Plan and Communicate – Often

Regardless of how your plan evolves, let workers know what the company is thinking. Businesses should share as much as they can that they are committed to, including, at a minimum, the types of cleaning they have performed. You also do not want to surprise workers with a last-minute email, requiring they show up at the worksite a few days later. Here are some practices we have gathered from clients:

  • Establish and share your company’s RTW timeline in advance so workers can manage known obligations (e.g., caring for elderly family members or children, or who may be sick themselves).

  • Give workers a way to communicate with management to express any concerns, make suggestions, or report out sick. Sometimes, offering anonymous surveys lets workers feel they can be more honest with their feedback.

  • Explain health and safety measures taken. OSHA’s General Duty Clause, for example, states employers must provide a workplace free from recognized hazards causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm. So, tell workers you care about them and are doing all you can through facility cleaning and workspace/workplace modifications. Seeing advanced preparation, routine monitoring, and actions to remedy practices that fall out of compliance go a long way toward reducing worker anxiety.

Beyond communicating with workers, companies should reach out to their AGS Program Office for assistance on their contingent workforce strategy. Our teams can provide early guidance on how, when, and what it means to show back up for contractors who are working at home now or who are furloughed – and how communications between stakeholders should be conveyed.

Be Ready to Adjust

Companies and workers alike have mixed feelings about when and how to reopen work facilities. Knowing this, all you can do is dig into conversations like those suggested above. Your companies are likely already beginning to think about these topics for full-time employees. It is equally important that these conversations include the contractor workforce so that when businesses can go back, everyone is ready.

In the meantime, we see a lot of productivity and success through remote working, with many businesses intending to keep up the practice for the near-term. Overall, many AGS clients are taking a conservative approach to RTW planning. Some are preparing by removing doors and chairs from conference rooms. Others announced plans to provide workers with personal protective equipment when the time comes to return. Still more are sharing intentions to stagger returns, but without hard dates, or are surveying workers to see how they feel about returning and during what timeframes.

This uncertain time is full of constraints, realities, and opportunities. Regardless of the route your company takes, use this information, as well as the rest of the insights on this website, to help you provide your workers with clear communications that keep them well-informed of the company’s expectations and prepare them to come back when the time is right.

Go back to AGS' COVID-19 homepage

This update contains general information only, and AGS is not rendering legal advice. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult qualified legal counsel. AGS shall not be responsible for any loss whatsoever sustained by any person or company who relies on this update. Inclusion of any hyperlink or explanatory notes/summary do not imply any endorsement, investigation, verification, or monitoring by AGS of any information in any hyperlinked site.