Thinking about reopening? 7 considerations for HR

As new COVID cases fall across the United States, many organizations are moving forward with plans for returning employees to the office.

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Not surprisingly, a return-to-the-workplace plan in the midst of a pandemic isn’t the easiest feat. It requires a ton of prep, safety protocols, logistical considerations and robust communication–responsibilities that often fall on the shoulders of human resources professionals.

“As the culture ambassadors of their organizations, HR leaders have an opportunity and responsibility to shape this experience in a positive way for employees and the organization. They should partner with their health, wellbeing and safety peers across the organization to build a comprehensive and integrated return-to-the workplace strategy,” says David Osborne, CEO of wellness firm Virgin Pulse.

Should HR leaders bring workers back into the office? What should they consider first? What should they do? HRE spoke to a number of experts for insight.

Listen to employees. HR leaders should hold regular listening sessions, conduct pulse surveys and encourage managers to talk proactively with their employees in team meetings and one-on-one discussions to understand how workers are feeling about returning to work, Osborne says. Find out: What concerns and stressors are top of mind for them? What would make them feel safe returning to the workplace? What support do they need right now?

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Be empathetic. Some employees are ready to come back into the office after months of working from home. Others simply aren’t. Considering each employees’ needs and not forcing anyone to come back if they aren’t comfortable is key.

“It’s about being empathetic and having compassion for what employees are going through and how they’re feeling,” says Jay Jamrog, futurist and co-founder of research firm i4cp. “There are a lot of employees who don’t feel safe; they don’t want to go to work and catch the [virus] or bring it home to their families. The wellbeing of employees is huge, and [being empathetic is] the right thing to do.”

Related: Employees worried about being exposed to COVID-19 at work

Consider at-risk employees. At-risk employees–who represent a big portion of the workforce–present a bigger challenge for HR and other corporate leaders as they consider reopening workplaces. The Kaiser Family Foundation recently found that one in four workers is at high risk for serious complications from COVID-19 if infected. Their analysis estimates that 37.7 million workers, or 24% of employed U.S. adults in 2018, are at high risk, including 10 million who are 65 or older and an additional 27.7 million with pre-existing medical conditions. The analysis also estimates that 12 million more at-risk adults who do not work themselves live in households with workers. For this group, indirect exposure could be just as serious a risk as going to work themselves, Kaiser says.

Related: 1 in 4 workers at risk for serious COVID-19 illness as employers open up workplaces

HR leaders are wise to give special consideration to these employees, experts say. “Employers should take into account the higher risk some workers will face, allowing them to work at home where possible, to be tested and to minimize their risks if they return to work,” says KFF President and CEO Drew Altman.

Consider digital tools to help. A number of vendors, health companies and others have released tech tools that aim to help employees safely return to the workplace. Some of these combine live health coaching, screening, monitoring analytics and more. For instance, Alight Solutions released an app that provides configurable screening and access to healthcare concierge services for all employees returning to their physical workspaces. CVS Health released a customizable COVID-19 testing solution for employers that offers clinical consultation, testing execution, integrated reporting and additional health and safety solutions to help reduce COVID-19 transmission.

Don’t cease work-from-home options. A number of companies–among them, Google, Apple and Facebook–have said they’ll continue to embrace work-from-home options until next year as the pandemic continues. Others, like Twitter, are embracing work-from-home options indefinitely.

If an organization can continue to allow employees to work remotely without disruption to its business, many experts–and health officials–suggest doing so.

Related: Why embracing long-term remote work is ‘the right thing to do’

Embrace safety measures. Safety and health should ultimately be the No. 1 priority when thinking about the return of employees to the office. For employers that need employees in workplaces, there are a number of basic steps to take, including following guidelines for social distancing, temperature checks, face masks and protective gear, sanitization stations, new protocols for meeting spaces, kitchens, keypads, visitors and updated floor plans.

Related: Why health needs to be HR’s No. 1 priority amid return-to-work plans

About 40% of companies identified workplace safety as a top priority in June, compared to 27% in a survey conducted in April, according to Willis Towers Watson. Most employers (71%) have developed workplace and employee safety policies to prepare for the return of employees. Among precautions they are embracing, or considering, are screening workers on re-entry, providing personal protective equipment and reconfiguring workspaces.

Overcommunicate about your reopening and COVID plans. Edward Jones CHRO Kristin Johnson says she’s been clear about telling employees what will happen, when it will happen and what to expect in regard to a return to the workplace, which she says will be gradual. “We’ve been transparent along the way [about our plans for working in the office],” Johnson says.

Related: 5 coronavirus lessons from Edward Jones’ CHRO

Broadridge CHRO Julie Taylor adds that communication with employees about return-to-work plans–and all things coronavirus-related–has been a priority.

Likewise, Osborne says, “communication fosters connection, affirms culture and will help employees stay engaged as they work from home and transition back to the workplace.

“Proactively update employees about what is happening across the organization–we suggest weekly updates through Zoom, email or videos from the CEO–and remember to celebrate successes and wins to keep employees engaged, aligned and motivated,” Osborne says. “Overcommunicate your company’s COVID-19 and return-to-work plans and clearly define each phase and specific return-to-work requirements and protocols.”

Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver. She can be reached at