After more than a year since a record number of employees were sent to work from home, a lot has changed in today’s workplace. The COVID-19 vaccination is now a reality, and many employers must decide if, when, and in what manner to return employees to on-site work. Not only do you need to support employee health and safety, but you also need to heed compliance requirements and take steps that will help you maintain a positive company culture.
Though changes are happening every day, there are some actions you can take now to plan for your employees’ eventual return. Here are some key factors you should consider when returning employees to the workplace:
How necessary it is for employees to be on-site
Not everyone has enjoyed remote work, but many have found a silver lining in working from home—higher productivity, no commute, and a better work-life balance. In fact, many employees have expressed an interest in remaining remote beyond the pandemic. A recent YouGov poll found that most remote employees prefer to continue working from home at least part-time after the pandemic. And many employers are on board with this idea. In a PWC survey, less than one in five executives said they wanted to return to the office as it was pre-pandemic, with many showing support for employees working from home two days per week.
Every organization will have a different approach to the need for on-site work, and it’s essential to determine what makes sense for your organization and culture. When deciding which employees should return to the workplace and under what circumstances, consider the following:
- Opportunities to collaborate: Zoom and other platforms can facilitate collaboration within and between teams, but some teams may work even better together on-site.
- Employee preferences: Finding flexible solutions for where employees can work can have a positive impact on morale.
- Employee experience levels: Employees with less experience can miss out on opportunities to learn when they lack on-site interaction with others.
- Cost: It may be more cost-efficient to keep some or all employees remote and reduce your real estate footprint.
The need for employee communication
Whether you decide to return employees to the workplace full-time, on a hybrid arrangement, or not at all, you’ll need to communicate regularly with employees to help them understand your rationale. At the heart of the communication should be the importance of employee health and safety and compliance with CDC guidelines. You’ll need to articulate what’s being done to keep returning employees safe and where employees can go for help and support.
Both before and after you return any employees to the workplace, company communications should cover the following topic areas:
- Which employees are returning to on-site work, and when
- New workplace health and safety protocols
- Policies for business travel
- Procedures for COVID-19 symptom checking and notification of illness
Developing a clear stance on employee vaccination
In December 2020, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued guidance declaring it legal for employers to require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 before returning to work, with some exceptions. However, to respect employee choice, most employers (61 percent, according to SHRM) have chosen instead to encourage rather than require employees to be vaccinated.
No matter how your organization approaches COVID-19 vaccination, it’s essential to provide clarity to employees about what is required (or not), and their options if they choose not to be vaccinated. Moreover, you may also choose to take extra steps to encourage vaccination among your workforce. For example, some organizations offer extra incentives such as paid leave and cash bonuses to employees who get vaccinated.
The value of flexible working options
Given that every employee has different needs, preferences, and abilities, flexibility can go a long way in helping employees find the best way to stay productive and engaged at work. While some employees thrive on face-to-face interaction and relish the chance to get back together with their work team, others will achieve better balance by splitting the workweek between the workplace and their home office.
Providing flexible work options helps to empower employees to create a work routine that works best for their situation. It can also support your diversity and inclusion efforts, particularly when it comes to engaging women. Lately, large numbers of women have exited the workforce, in part because of a lack of flexibility to help them juggle pressures from work and home. Providing access to flexible work options can not only help you retain women, but it can also create an environment where employees thrive and find better work-life balance.
Returning your employees to the workplace requires careful consideration of the many available options for who should return, when, and how often employees should work on-site. In many ways, finding the right solution depends on your culture and the needs of your workforce. By taking steps to consider your options now, you’ll be better equipped for a smooth return of your employees to the workplace.