Consistency will ease return-to-workplace decisions

As multi-disciplinary task forces at companies and universities deal with the complicated challenges of developing effective plans for employees or students to return to work or campus, where they will be safe and have healthy working conditions, it is clear that return decisions will be easier if all initiatives are consistent with the following two principles:

  1. Social distancing standards.
  2. Effective testing in place.


Just as universities can no longer have common move-in dates when all students and their parents arrive on a certain weekend, companies will need to put limits on the number of employees who can work at each location. Just as supermarkets now limit the number of shoppers in the store at any given time, people in facilities management, in addition to checking out ventilation, will have to, location by location, determine not only the maximum number of employees who can be safely accommodated in a certain space, but also make appropriate adjustments in office layout, as well as in cafeterias, break rooms, some bathrooms and dormitories. Work schedules, too, will also have to be adjusted to accommodate both online and alternate work hours. For universities, a new constraint will undoubtedly be not only the number of single rooms on campus but also protocols to ask students to take large lecture classes online while making sure they sit apart in a class or seminar room. This means some employees will need to remain working at home and some students will continue to take some courses or some classes online from either their home or dorm. It will also probably be the case that at colleges and universities, priority will be given to international students (who could not go home) and science majors (because online lab courses do not work well).

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It needs to be recognized that returning to work or school is not an event, but a process that will have to take place gradually. Unlike the cases in China, Korea and Singapore, where the government told companies and universities what to do, leaders of companies and universities in the United States, just like state governors, are largely on their own and will have to develop specific plans that fit their unique circumstances, consistent with applicable country, federal, state and local laws, OSHA requirements, possible union considerations, guidance from CDC and WHO and privacy issues.

Consistent with the social distancing protocol, companies need to make and announce decisions that at a minimum will respond to the following:

  • The number of people who may attend internal or external meetings
  • Domestic and international travel policies
  • Policies with respect to visitors, vendors, customers, guests, and fans at competitive sporting events
  • Polices with respect to supply, cleaning and disposal of PPE


All the experts agree that until a vaccine is developed, regular, accurate and convenient diagnostic and antibody testing is crucial, as is contact tracing. The testing will not only be for employees and students but also for the employees of contractors who are always present, such as cafeteria workers, security guards and maintenance people. The question is where and how the testing will be done. In some situations, it can be done in the community while in other cases it will have to be done at the company or the university. This will require medical guidance and supervision with the agreed protocols clear with respect to specific testing results. Clear protocols around the frequency of tests as well as information and guidance around test results is essential.

The unsolved problem is what to do about employees whose only way of getting to work is on soon-to-be crowded buses and trains. It may be that these employees, at least in the short run, should be encouraged to continue to work from home. Eli Lilly has uncapped the number of days employees have back up childcare available. Wayfair recently announced that no parents will be required to return to the office while schools and childcare centers remain closed.

Related: Benefits coverage from HRE

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Professor Fred Foulkes, founder and director of the Human Resources Policy Institute at the Boston University Questrom School of Business,  prepared this paper in connection with the spring meeting of company members, where one agenda topic was returning to work sites as the economy opens. He was struck with the similar challenges facing companies and universities and colleges.

Fred K. Foulkes
Fred K. Foulkes is a professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business and is director of the Human Resources Policy Institute. Send questions or comments to [email protected].