Why ‘moving slowly’ should be at the core of returning to workplaces

One company cautions there won’t be a “big bang Monday,” where all employees head back at once.
By: | May 8, 2020 • 3 min read
(Photo by Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: This is the third in a three-part series related to coronavirus around returning-to-work strategies and priorities for HR leaders. For part 1, click here  and for part 2, click here.

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Employers around the country that have spent the last two months strategizing for shuttered operations or all-remote workforces are now shifting gears to consider how to bring their people back to work, once the worst of the coronavirus pandemic has passed.

For UST Global, there won’t be a “big bang Monday” where all employees return on the same day, says Michael Adamson, vice president of global HR operations at UST. The majority of the digital and technology company’s 25,000 global employees worked from home during the peak of the pandemic. The organization has now developed return-to-work guidelines for its leaders in 25 countries, which include phasing people back in to work after offices are deep-cleaned.

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They also suggest using thermal scanners to take employees’ temperatures, or asking workers in small offices to take their own daily temperature; redesigning interior spaces so that people sit 6 feet apart; installing hand sanitizers at entry points and in restrooms; and intensely cleaning all common areas, including door handles and elevator buttons.

Company leaders also participate in webinars and town halls to share daily challenges and suggestions on how to adapt the guidelines in various locations.

Adamson believes that employee emotions and behaviors may need to be closely monitored for a while. HR leaders should be asking, how are workers reacting and coping?

“We’re moving slowly,” Adamson says. “It’s going to be really interesting how this changes the way we collaborate and work together.”

A gradual process is also on the horizon for CDK Global, a technology company that serves the auto industry. At the end of April, the organization opened one of its essential offices in Petaluma, Calif., which processes license plates for the state. Six of its 25 workers volunteered to return to the workplace.

“It’s sort of a pilot,” says Amy Byrne, executive vice president and chief HR and communications officer at the company that supports 9,000 global workers. “We put in the state’s protocols, [including] a dedicated quarantine area, adjusted seating so people are 6 feet apart, have a clear one-way traffic pattern and hired someone to stand at the front door to screen [visitors] coming in and hand them masks and gloves. We’re thinking about keeping the door open so people don’t have to touch the handles.”

Three other essential offices have stayed open with a volunteer, skeleton crew. As of this writing, the company plans to shelter in place until May 11. But before any more offices open, Byrne says, the number of COVID-19 cases must drop off in that location, and then, only 25% of the staff would be brought back to the work site on a volunteer basis.

“We’re going to take it slow, learn from others,” Byrne says, adding three employees in Europe and one in the U.S. were infected with COVID-19. “We’re not leading, we’re lagging a week or two behind governments that ease restrictions so we can have some experience with how that’s going without making employees vulnerable.”

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It’s important to shift employees’ focus toward the company’s future, before and after they return to the workplace. CDK Global frequently communicates business concerns and news to employees, including about business strategies and successes, no matter how small, which gives workers a renewed sense of hope and optimism.

Looking ahead, she believes the world of work won’t return to normal—if at all—any time soon.

“It’s not like when [everyone] gets back, there will be blue skies and the economy is back on track,” she says. “People will still be struggling.”

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Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.