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Back to the office – A guide to prepare returning to the office after Covid-19

Back to the office – A guide to prepare returning to the office after Covid-19

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After months of working from home, employees in many countries are finally starting to get back to the office. But navigating the disruption caused by Covid-19 is one of the biggest challenges of our generation. 

Are you returning to the office post Covid?

Even with loosening restrictions in some countries, companies find themselves facing further uncertainty. This is because they struggle to get back to regular operations while minimizing the risk to their employees. A recent study by PwC found that only a fifth of business leaders believe they’ll be back to business as usual within a month of the pandemic ending.

Yet despite the concerns, there are some clear benefits of getting back to work. Working from home has proven difficult for many employees. That is true especially for those with children, who have been unable to attend school. Security and privacy issues are other factors as an increasing number of cybercriminals try to exploit the situation. Companies need to take measures to provide a safe working environment for employees. 

Facing the new normal

Operations leaders now bear the brunt of the responsibility to transition their teams into offices as needed. Given the lack of clear guidance, they face a very difficult task. They need to make sure that their employees’ return to work is in line with the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions. 

At the same time, the situation is constantly changing. Regulators are putting in place new laws and recommendations to reduce the risk of a second wave. That’s why operations leaders need to understand the risks and chart a course that will help them adapt to what many dub “the new normal”.

The corporate transformation 

Covid-19 has transformed corporate culture beyond measure, and the effects of many of these changes will be felt for years to come. Fortunately, there’s a silver lining. Working from home was already a well-established alternative to the typical five days office routine. IWG reports that 70 percent of professionals work at least one day a week already in 2018

For many employees, it presents a better work-life balance and higher morale. For employers, it means better productivity and talent retention. Many high-profile studies have shown boosts in productivity and work output in remote or WFH settings, amongst others from Harvard, Stanford, and Gallup. While employee retention is less clear from a scientific viewpoint, multiple remote companies report extremely high voluntary retention rates.

Many people leaders today are taking an inclusive approach. They’ll continue to support remote workers but also give employees the option to return to the office if they want to. To make this work, companies need a communication strategy that promotes a shared vision of what happens next. 

There is no doubt that for some companies, the transition will be smoother than for others. People operations teams should proactively approach conversations with employees who are still concerned about their health and safety. 

What’s the legal situation?

The legal situation is often drastically different from one country to the next. Some countries, such as Sweden, never had a hard lockdown in the first place. Most other parts of the world, however, either closed all non-essential businesses or placed heavy restrictions on their operations. Working from home was, and continues to be, the new norm. Even in places where most restrictions have been lifted, many businesses still recommend that their employees continue working from home if they’re able to. 

Naturally, reviewing your regional rules and recommendations is the obvious place to start. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) lists the standards and directives that businesses need to follow for allowing people to return to work in the US. 

The EU provides a similar resource. However, it’s important to remember that each member state has its own rules and guidelines as well. In the UK, businesses can review the Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management for the most recent updates. For German companies, the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is a good resource. Unfortunately, their FAQ is available only in German

As many companies have distributed teams or many offices around the globe, that means monitoring different laws. To help you with this task, we have created an overview in this crowd-sourced document

What are the best practices?

Our world with Covid-19 brings plenty of new generalized rules. Nonetheless, these rules vary between countries, regions and working environments. Most of them revolve around social distancing and personal hygiene measures. 

Aside from the obvious need to adhere to legal compliance, every organization needs its own strategy for returning to the workplace. This requires addressing the following three key areas:

  1. When to return – your employees need to be ready to return, and they need to feel safe doing so. It’s also important to prepare for the possibility of a new surge in cases with a ‘re-exit’ plan.
  2. Who will return – some businesses have segmented their workforces based on factors like roles and activities. Generally, those who can work remotely should continue to do so, especially if they themselves prefer to.
  3. What’s required – employee experience and safety are top priorities now. Businesses must communicate openly about the risks. On top of that, you’ll also need to apply the rules and regulations mandated in your country or region.

When to return to the office

In the UK, surveys expect that more than half of office workers will be back in the office by the end of June. The other half will continue working from home for the time being. In the US, employers keep pushing back their anticipated return dates due to the evolving public health and legal landscape. Many US businesses which are planning to let their employees return to the office are aiming for a 25-30% occupancy. Even the countries which had quite a low number of cases are still far from being back to business as usual. This includes those countries which have declared that the pandemic is over.

Notably, major companies inside and outside the tech industry have already decided to keep offices closed until the end of the year 2020. Google and Facebook told their employees that workers who can do their jobs remotely should plan to do so until 2021, and most offices will be closed until the end of this year. Even companies in more traditional industries like banking haven’t rushed the return. UBS announced earlier that most employees will keep working remotely until at least Q4, while evaluating to keep one third of their staff remote permanently.

The importance of employee buy-in

Without the support of your employees, even the most carefully planned changes can run into problems. Getting back to the office after Covid-19 is no exception. After all, every single one of us has experienced the crisis, but we’ve all experienced it in different ways. Some have lost their loved ones. Others have existing conditions which put them at a higher risk of contracting the disease. 

As result, some employees will be hesitant to return to the office. Others may be eager to get back to their normal routines. Moreover, it might be the case that responsibilities, such as looking after children, might prevent them from getting back to work right away. Being sensitive to this complicated reality is a must.

As a general best practice, a lot of forward-thinking people leaders have started getting a pulse from employees with regular surveys. Providers like CultureAmp, Lattice, or Peakon can help larger teams to run these at scale. For many smaller companies, a survey tool like Typeform will be enough to run indicative surveys. Leaders should add to this by talking openly about personal challenges due to Covid-19 in their 1:1s. 

Who will return to the workplace

To maintain social distancing, companies are using rotating shifts to prevent having too many employees in the office at once. If you’re in the situation that the existing office space is too limited for everyone being in the office you can start by segmenting for the reboarding. To create your own framework, you can think about:

  • Is the team or specific role required onsite or able to work remotely?
  • Should there be special arrangements for the high-risk employees and those who have, or are caring for, high-risk family members, including health care workers?
  • Can you provide reasonable accommodation for those with children in daycare/school?

We’ve seen operation teams implementing different ways to rotate those groups inside the workplace. This heavily depends on the company’s size, office space and employee surveys. One option is to create different groups that are rotating based on the day or the week. This allows you to plan potential synergies between teams that are in the office at the same time. Another approach is to let employees opt-in voluntarily each week. In this case, teams like to track office attendance for traceability.

Before setting up this part of the strategy, companies should revisit their offices. For many, relocating desks to ensure social distancing will be key. Yet, some companies might consider redesigning entire facilities and setting up glass screens. With an updated office layout in mind, you can determine the safe number of employees at any time. 

When redesigning the workplace, keep in mind that some of these measures could cause serious issues with teamwork and morale. They could be especially demotivating for people who are looking to return to their workplaces for a sense of normality.

What’s required – working in phases

Returning to work is best done in phases. Most likely, not all your employees can go back to work immediately due to social distancing measures. Each phase should last at least 1 month to determine if the measures are working and if any signs of Covid-19 are arising in your company.

To come up with a clear plan to give employees, you’ll want to create a Covid-19 taskforce. The team should be composed of cross-functional leaders from HR, operations, legal, and finance. In many companies, we’ve seen People teams to lead efforts together with the management. If possible, your legal team should be included. 

The taskforce should be overlooking policies you put in place and update on the status on a weekly basis. The group should also create schedules or shifts of people coming to the office and actively monitor rules to identify and address issues. For employees, there should also be a clear point of contact with the regards to questions and concerns. 

Should we test employees before re-boarding?

Before re-entering the workplace, your company should decide whether you will require the returning employees to test for Covid-19 and if so, how will you enforce and track it. In that case, you should consult with your legal team or external legal support to ensure that you comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), or comparable local regulations.

Because the test data is sensitive medical data is classified as “special category data”, it is subject to very stringent protection requirements. If your company decides that testing is necessary, it will require consent from employees to undergo such a medical examination. To avoid potential discrimination claims, you should test all employees instead of only testing certain groups who are perceived to be at a higher risk of having contracted a virus. 

If required to test before returning to work, a clear and transparent communication with regards to the use of data is necessary. You should also advise your employees how the test where and how the test will be done. A possible timeline of the communication and testing could look like this:

  • 7+ days starting the communication
  • 3-4 days prior – 1st Covid-19 test and daily symptoms and exposure screening
  • 1-2 days prior – 2nd Covid-19 test

Measures – taking a look at existing playbooks

When planning out measures for the phases, your company should be assessing your specific situation. To make things easier for you to plan out the phases, we’ve taken a look at policies of companies that have already, at least partly, transitioned teams back to the office.

Before reopening offices, you should definitely consider:

  • In-depth sanitizing and cleaning of all office space 
  • Stocks of cleaning supplies, gloves and masks for use
  • Reorganizing office seating to ensure social distancing 
  • Physical markers and cues to remind social distancing 
  • Creating clear policies for employees on how to safely return back to work

In the likely case you won’t transition everyone to the office, your people operations and IT teams should work together to set up improved video conferencing setups for hybrid and remote meetings. Especially larger calls with some people in the office and some being remote can be hard to set up properly. Due to the latency in software like Zoom, you will hear your office neighbor talking with a short delay. 

With regards to requiring employees to wear masks, 92% of companies we surveyed in May did not require to wear them at all times. To make this possible they limit the number of employees in the office and work stations are moved to ensure safety distance. Shared areas like the kitchen are also often very heavily limited for the initial phases of the reboarding.

Communicating your policies

A central information for all employees will be if they are required to come back to the office, or have the freedom to decide on their own if continuing to work from home. The shorter and clearer you can make those expectations, the better. One of our customers communicates their specific status for each of their offices around the world in free, encouraged, or forced working from home (WFH) – free WFH being their default home office policy.

Usually, the plan is divided into three or four phases. It’s essential to be clear on the rules in each phase, and keep everyone informed of expectations and changes to the rules. A central, constantly updated document that is easily accessible should be provided. Companies using Back can also set auto-answers to help employees access the information easily at any time. 

An example transition in four phases

Based on reviewing multiple policies we’ve created an example draft for you to start working on your internal policies when returning to the office. Please keep in mind that these are generalized and you will be required to take other measures based on local regulations, individual circumstances and business requirements. However, they should give you a good foundation on potential measures to implement.

Phase 1 potential recommended measures:

  • Return to the office is voluntary for all employees, based on personal circumstance and comfort level
  • Work travel is not permitted
  • Occupancy of max. 20-30% capacity
  • Social distancing in effect
  • Priority for roles where physical presence in office is a need
  • High-risk individuals continue to work from home
  • Parents with daycare/kids out of school should continue WFH 
  • No external visitors permitted at the premises
  • All employees provided with a face mask for personal use
  • All meetings should continue to take place virtually 
  • Enhanced office cleaning schedules to be more frequent/in-depth

Phase 2 potential recommended measures:

  • Social distancing in place
  • Maximum of 5 people within same meeting room
  • External people of max. 2-10 in a group
  • Traveling is limited and needs management approval
  • Anyone can still continue to work from home for any reason
  • Capacity is increased to 30-50%

Phase 3 potential recommended measures:

  • Potential softening of social distancing based on regulations
  • Gatherings and socials of no more than 50 people are allowed
  • In-person meetings permitted
  • Necessary work related travel resumes
  • Enhanced cleaning schedules still continuing

Phase 4, returning to normal:

  • No more Covid-specific restrictions in place
  • Anticipation of larger degree of WFH on an ongoing basis
  • Office spaces going back to normal
  • Continued increased investment in remote technology infrastructure, and office-to-office communication
  • Global All Hands permitted to proceed on location

Staying connected in an uncertain environment

As you’re planning potential ways to return to the office in 2020 or beyond, break down your strategy into 1. when, 2. who, and 2. what. Leaders will have to make difficult decisions on this path. We hope you’ll find good solutions for your organization.

Disclaimer: This article was written and published in the last week of June 2020. It provides initial learnings from companies that have been transitioning back to offices during the last weeks. We’re aiming to update this guide regularly. Please let us know any feedback at backlog@backhq.com

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