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Returning to the Office: Tips for Success

Wednesday, June 30, 2021
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It’s happening. Companies are welcoming back employees as the pandemic slowly eases. While this is good news; it comes with a weight of uncertainty, planning, preparation and communication. Employers and employees alike have concerns about the return and what that will look like. There are a lot of variations, options and issues to ponder.

Creating a return-to-work plan is not something to take lightly. Companies need to assess their situation, recognize employee sentiments and establish communication and feedback channels before disseminating any plans. Times have never been more serious or volatile, which is why a cautious and transparent plan, with buy-in from leadership, is critical for success.

Creating a Plan

Eliminate confusion and uncertainty by creating a plan for your workplace. Start by evaluating your unique situation. Everything from where you are located to employee needs and concerns should be calculated into your plan. This is the time to review policies and update them based on new expectations and requirements. If you need a pulse check on what your employees are thinking and feeling, this is a great time to survey them, or even hold a small focus group. You want to collect honest opinions and employee feedback to create the best plan moving forward.

Once you have finalized the return-to-work details, you will want to establish a return-to-work timeline and communication plan. Keep in mind, even if you think the plan is done; it’s not. You will need to remain fluid in your guidelines and transparent as things change. Continue to monitor changing conditions and be ready to update your plan and your workers.

Let’s take a look at some of the major considerations in a return-to-work plan.

Workplace Options

Every workplace runs differently. Return to work models will vary based on factors like company size, industry and geographic location. There are 3 basic ways to break this down:

  • Onsite – All (or as many as possible) employees back in the office.
  • Remote – All employees work from home (or similar).
  • Hybrid – Mix of onsite and remote workforce.

Offering some type of hybrid option is a general best practice to consider, as well as a very common request from employees. What hybrid looks like could be different for every employer, but it is critical to remember that employees want flexibility now, more than ever.

If you consider offering a hybrid work model, think about how to create a fair and regulated program for this practice. This could include elements such as a form to request remote work or some sort of sign up and approval process. Expectations such as hours, response times and more should be communicated and agreed to by all parties.

Workplace Safety

Above all, employee safety is paramount. All return-to-work plans should feature safety as the top priority and be built to put the workforce at ease. Employers need to think ahead in a number of areas, such as:

  • Revised workplace layouts – look for ways to increase personal space, meeting room policies, etc.
  • Social distancing measures – encourage spatial awareness, avoid elevators, establish walking traffic patterns (one-way), stagger employee schedules (when possible), and more
  • Behavioral changes – discourage congregating in small areas, lingering or meeting in hallways, avoid shaking hands, etc.
  • Updates to cleaning procedures – step up cleaning protocols, make items like hand sanitizer and wipes accessible
  • Use of masks and face coverings – refer to guidelines and laws based on location and industry, seek legal counsel when implementing any policies, have masks on hand, and communicate expectations
  • Facilities – consider updating ventilation systems, installing automatic doors, using no-touch soap and water dispensers
  • General best practices – post reminders about handwashing and avoiding contact with your nose, eyes and mouth

COVID-19 Vaccinations

Establishing COVID-19 vaccination guidelines as part of your return-to-work plan will help eliminate confusion and further set company expectations. Various questions, opinions and apprehensions surround the issue of vaccination, so it is important to keep up with changing recommendations and updates. Many companies have chosen to encourage vaccinations vs. mandate vaccinations; this is one area you will want to proceed cautiously and carefully follow EEOC guidance.

Overall, you want to be a good resource regarding vaccinations. Encourage your leaders to be champions and help them to lead the way in your organization. Be transparent in your communications regarding vaccination. Share key messages and education on a regular basis with your team though a variety of channels including email, posters, meetings, intranets and more.


How well you communicate your return-to-work plan will correlate with its success. The importance of honest and consistent communication with employees cannot be overstated. Communication should rank at the top of every company’s list, every day. Transparency needs to be demonstrated, so trust can be built. Additionally, work to establish two-way dialogue with your employees. Whether it is a meeting, forum, suggestion box, or online tool, find outlets for employees to share opinions and concerns.

Plan for Change

There are many elements in the mix when creating a return-to-work plan. And the tough part is that one right answer or one perfect plan does not exist. You have to create a fair plan that works for your business, while managing to incorporate local and federal laws. It is critical to stay current on changing conditions in the return-to-work arena. This continues to be a fluid situation with new information arriving daily. Be prepared. Make sure your plan allows for updates, expansion and flexibility. Build in time to regularly review your policies and documentation. This is not a plan that stays static.

If you’d like to know more about this topic and pick up some tactical guidance on return-to-work planning, check out Zywave’s Employer Best Practices for a Safe and Efficient Return to the Office on-demand webinar.

Note: Legislation and guidance around pandemic-related work issues are constantly changing with each new piece of information. The information in this blog should not be considered legal advice.

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