The workforce returns with a COVID-19 return to work policy
Engagement 9 minute read

The workforce returns with a COVID-19 return to work policy

Megan Orr | September 17, 2020

A COVID-19 post-pandemic return to work policy is a policy meant to outline for employees and employers what their shared responsibilities are to keep everyone safe.

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a host of challenges for many organizations, not the least of which was switching to remote work. For those still engaged in remote jobs—and everyone else, actually—the question is: when are things going to return to normal and what does normal look like?

With schools reopening, many workplaces are beginning to plan their return to work, too, if they haven’t taken steps in that direction already. But what does a return to work mean for employees and employers? 

There are many different factors to consider. A return to work policy for COVID-19 means outlining for both the employee and employer what to expect from each other and what safety measures have been implemented. A return to work policy acts as both a guideline and a sort of contract that acknowledges the shared responsibility of both parties to keep each other accountable and safe during the current global pandemic. 

Download our FREE customizable COVID-19 Workplace Return Policy Template to help you introduce new workplace policies and protocols at work that help minimize the spread of the COVID-19 virus and keep your employees safe.

While it may be tempting to get employees back into the office ASAP, returning to work full time for the sake of returning may not be in the best interest of your employees. HR and management teams must play an integral role in ensuring that all health and safety guidelines are being followed and that they are up-to-date on health information. While working from home has been an adjustment for many, it may still be the safest option when it comes to protecting employees against COVID-19 and mitigating health risks. 

There are many different elements to consider when looking at heading back into shared coworking spaces.

For example, and this is just one of many considerations, will masks be required, suggested, or optional? And can employees comfortably do their jobs while wearing masks? An effective return to work policy should look at a number of factors, but here are some questions to get you started:

Why are you returning to work?

This may seem like an obvious question, but if the answer is simply, “Because it’s time,” that may not be good enough. Returning for the sake of returning, rather than for actual logistical reasons, may be seen as unnecessary and dismissive of your employees’ safety.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t valid reasons for pushing for a return to the office. For many people, working from home has not been ideal. Whether it’s a distracting home life, difficulty with time management, or general feelings of isolation impacting mental health, many employees are eager to get back to their regular routines. Additionally, some roles are difficult, if not nearly impossible, to manage or perform remotely.

Is it truly safe?

As COVID-19 numbers are continuing to rise, the real question is whether it’s actually safe to be working in groups again. This is all about establishing the risks for your organization to go back and how you will be able to mitigate them. If it seems like it won’t be worth the risk, then it isn’t time to go back, yet. 

There are certainly mental health and productivity benefits when it comes to working together in groups, but those benefits may outweigh the risks right now. 

How strictly will you enforce rules?

It isn’t fun to have to play the “policy police” but it’s essential to help keep the curve as flat as possible. For honest mistakes like a mask slipping down or getting too close to someone, polite reminders are fine, since people are still getting used to COVID-19 policies. But how will you manage people who outright refuse to follow the guidelines? 

It’s a complicated matter, because your employees do have a certain amount of autonomy, but when they are endangering other employees, it’s your responsibility to step in. HR Grapevine recommends treating it as a disciplinary issue if it is both deliberate and a serious issue. The key to responding to these kinds of personnel issues is both transparency (e.g. explaining clearly why these policies exist) and consistency (always address the issue, with every employee that does not follow your policies). Venngage has a number of incident report templates you can use, as well as guidelines for effectively recording incidents and preventing future ones.

Should you consider giving employees a waiver to sign?

Some organizations may have or are considering giving employees liability waivers in order to protect the company. This is a strategy that is meant to ensure employees understand the risk of coming back to work and that the company is not at fault in the event of an employee contracting COVID-19 while working on the premises. 

While, as HR Daily Advisor describes, it may minimize the risk of “frivolous suits” it’s also worth noting that  “this, however, is seen by many as a thin justification.” A COVID-19 waiver might make it seem as though exposure to the virus is something you’re anticipating, rather than actively working against. 

The consensus is generally that liability waivers will shake employees’ confidence in their employer, rather than make them feel safe. Additionally, HR Daily Advisor says, “If a business is negligent, a waiver probably won’t matter, even if it would otherwise be enforceable.” We advise consulting with your legal department or another legal professional before deciding what makes the most sense for your organization. 

Does your space allow for adequate safety?

If your office was at full capacity, will all employees be able to be 6-feet away from each other, while still having enough space to effectively do their jobs? Will you also be able to set up ‘pathways’ so employees can walk around without getting too close to one another? Do you have adequate hand washing areas or will you be able to set up sanitation stations throughout the office? 

These and a number of other considerations should all be thought out before returning to work. 

What will returning to work look like for your organization?

This is one of the key questions to explore, as returning to work will be highly individualized, at the company level, the department level and the employee level too. Along with answering the questions listed previously, you will have to consider a variety of options for returning to work. 

Business (almost) as usual 

If your office space allows for all employees to be spaced out and they are eager to return, then going back to work will be a relatively seamless transition for your organization. With some modifications to day-to-day activities ensuring physical distancing, as well as increased cleaning and sanitation measures, your employees should be able to return to work in the office. 

Rotating or flexible schedules

This strategy involves working part time from home and part-time in the office, meaning that an employee’s time is split working 2-3 days either at the office or at home. Many organizations have also implemented flexible schedules, where employees work rotating schedules so that there are never more than a certain number of employees in shared spaces at any given time. Rotation schedules help to reduce the risk of transmission. If you prefer, you can also implement permanent flexibility, allowing employees to continue working remotely part time. 

Additionally, some companies have organized their days in and out by department, so that if there is a confirmed case of COVID-19, it is hopefully contained to one single department, rather than spread to the entire organization. However, if you have lots of teams in your organization, this may not work as a solution for you.

Not now, maybe not ever

As you evaluate the needs of your organization and employees, you may be realizing that returning to work in the office isn’t necessary. If your employees are happy working from home and are able to do their jobs successfully, then why go back to in office work at all? In fact, according to a TINYpulse study, remote workers tend to be “happier at work” as well as “feel more valued”. 

What’s that old saying? ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’

Return to work policies

Creating a return to work policy means examining risk factors, and determining whether a return to work makes the most sense for your employees, and for your organization. 

The first step in creating the policy should be performing a risk assessment. WorkSafeBC recommends asking yourselves the following questions:

  • What common areas do people congregate in? (e.g. conference rooms or the kitchen break room)
  • Are there specific job tasks that require your employees to be interacting closely—as in, less than 6 feet—with their coworkers or other members of the public?
  • What are some common touch surfaces you need to be concerned about? (e.g. door knobs or countertops)

In a risk assessment, you must also consider what resources you have available to prevent exposure (such as personal protective equipment or PPE) and whether or not you will ask employees to supply their own masks, hand sanitizer, etc.

You will also have to determine individual risk factors for employees, for example, for an employee who is immunocompromised or who provides care for an elderly relative. Additionally, you will have to consider a variety of other factors in each individual’s lives, such as: do they live with someone who works in a high risk industry (e.g. a hospital)? Do they take transit to and from work? Do they have children in their care? 

Your return to work policy should also consider contingencies for if there is an outbreak or confirmed case of COVID-19 at your workplace. How will you handle it? How will you inform employees? These policies should be clearly outlined and shared with your employees. Additionally, you should continue to implement workplace wellness programs, to ensure your employees’ wellbeing, both physically and mentally. 

No one has all the answers right now about the pandemic and how (and when) things will return to normal.  The most important thing right now is to continue supporting your employees, no matter if they’re working from home or in the office. 

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