As companies gradually begin returning to work amid the COVID-19 pandemic, employers are tasked with getting employees back on the job as safely as possible. From preventing the spread of COVID-19 in their workplace to communicating a mountain of revised workplace policies, organizations have a lot to consider before reopening their doors.

The COVID-19 crisis presents a unique opportunity for leaders to shine. There has never been a more critical time for strong, intentional leadership. With anxiety at an all-time high, communication is vital. Frequent, clear communication about the steps you are taking builds confidence among employees, customers, and vendors alike, directly impacting the success of your eventual reopening. Now is the time for employers to start planning new policies and processes. Here are seven return-to-work tips employers should consider:

1. Introduce employee surveys

Ask employees for their views on remote work policies and reopening via a survey or one-on-one conversations. An anonymous survey will allow you to gather candid, collective answers, but one-on-one conversations will give you the opportunity to delve deeper into individual employee concerns and address them on a case-by-case basis.

Employee feedback can inform your return-to-work plan, but keep in mind that you may not be able to please everyone. Be clear that you are evaluating all input and making the best decisions for your employees, customers, and the success of the business as a whole.

2. Implement employee safety measures

“If companies can stay remote and keep their staff remote, that is first and foremost what they should do,” says Michelle Thompson, vice president of human resources for XMI.

If on-site work is required, encourage social distancing. Instruct employees to maintain at least six feet of distance from one another. If space is tight, implement a rolling schedule so not everyone is in the office at the same time. Use your employee surveys to accommodate the schedules of workers who can’t return to regular business office hours or on-site workplaces because of children at home or other COVID-19-related challenges.

3. Rethink your physical setup

Review your office space for social distancing challenges. Consider making changes, such as limiting areas that customers might visit and repurposing social spaces, such as break rooms and gyms. If you are in an office building, reach out to building management to understand their plan for reopening and fold that information into your plan as well.

Perform routine environmental cleaning and disinfection. If possible, provide disposable wipes so commonly used surfaces can be wiped down by employees before each use and place hand sanitizer in high-traffic areas. Discourage workers from using other workers’ phones, desks, offices, or other tools and equipment. For more guidance on keeping working conditions safe and healthy, see the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) standards and directives on preventing occupational exposure to the coronavirus here.

4. Create and update policies

Key workplace policies, such as office safety regulations, client meeting rules, and work travel policies, need to be documented or updated in return-to-work policies. There are also other important — yet often overlooked — considerations, like employee benefits, that should be factored into your policy updates as well.

“Staff can’t use their paid time off,” says Thompson. “They can’t go on vacation or do the things they would have normally done for PTO, so employers should consider increasing the PTO carry-over for one year.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance for businesses and employers outlines best practices for maintaining healthy business operations, including implementing flexible sick leave and other supportive policies.

5. Package testing as part of your safety plan

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that employers do have the right to request health information from workers during the pandemic.

“Employers can and should at least do temperature checks,” says Thompson. “They could also have a checklist with questions that the CDC recommends.”

The EEOC guidance lays out how employers can determine which workers are ready to return to work, and under what conditions, based on the employee’s health status.

6. Serve and protect clients, vendors and partners too

Clearly communicate customer service policies with clients and explain you are committed to serving in their best interests during this unprecedented time. Limit face-to-face contact with customers to the highest extent possible and maintain appropriate social distancing practices if in-person customer interaction is necessary. Ensure any employees who appear to have coronavirus symptoms upon arrival to work or who become sick throughout the day are immediately separated from other employees, customers and other visitors and sent home.

It is also important to create an ongoing dialogue with vendors and partners about your response plans, and share best practices with other companies, especially those in your supply chain. The CDC provides guidance to businesses on how to assess your business’ essential functions, as well as how reliant others in the community are on your services or products.

7. Consider financial implications

In some cases, furloughed employees may be receiving state unemployment benefits as well as a federal supplement under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, earning more money than they would if they returned to work full-time. Employers have the right to recall furloughed workers. If an employee refuses to return to work after sufficient notice, he or she can be discharged and even disqualified from receiving further unemployment benefits.

Some employers are addressing the unemployment claims issue by temporarily increasing the wages of recalled workers.

“If [employers] receive loans and it’s not going to be crippling to their business and operations, that would be an incentive to get employees to return to work,” Thompson says. “I think that’s a good strategy because the $600 [in weekly unemployment benefits] is only going to last through a certain time frame, then they can return the employee’s pay to normal.”

Return to Work Checklist for Employers

While resuming operations following the COVID-19 pandemic may seem like a daunting task, you don’t have to go it alone. We’ve created a handy “Return to Work Checklist for Employers” to help you through the transition.

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