Over the last few months, businesses have survived by being reactive. There was no handbook for COVID-19, so executives have had to think creatively to quickly support their teams in the short term.
Now that the future is looking a tad clearer, leaders can start to think past tomorrow. Many are in the early stages of brainstorming how to bring employees back to the office.
These plans tend to focus on physical preparations: ordering hand sanitizer, creating a mandatory mask policy, reconfiguring office layouts for 6 feet of distancing.
Such precautions are a good starting point. But it’s going to take more than physical preparations for employees to return to the office safely.
Companies must also consider who should return to the office, and when. To make the transition safe and comfortable for everyone, leaders need to think about what each role entails, what employees’ living circumstances are, what their transportation needs are, and more.
Begin this evaluation process by answering the three questions below.
Which roles require employees to be in the office?
Even as the government lifts restrictions on nonessential workplaces, it's not feasible to bring every employee back to the office at once. Unless your organization is small and you have a very big space, a full return makes it challenging for employees to stay six feet apart.
Instead, focus on just bringing back employees whose work depends on being in the office. Their position may require face-to-face meetings or depend on on-site tools and technology.
According to PWC, management should lead the way in identifying these roles by answering a few questions as a group:
- Has remote working disrupted the productivity of any roles? If so, what aspect of remote working is to blame? Only department heads who know the day-to-day operations of their reports can answer these questions.
- Could adjustments be made to employees’ remote working setup to increase productivity?Consider new tools that would help remote employees complete tasks historically done in the office. The Cary Bernstein Architect firm, for example, recently replaced in-person design discussions with collaboration done over Slack channels and video chats.
- For employees with positions that don’t have remote workarounds, what do they need at the office to get their work done? Figure out how long these employees will need to be in the office each week and whether they need to meet with other team members. This information will help you create workplace shifts.
Track and analyze the information you’ve gathered on a spreadsheet. Start by creating one column for employee names and another to indicate whether they need to be in the office.
For ChartHop users, tracking these employees doesn’t require any data entry. Just filter your organization’s Data Sheet by the positions that need to be in the office.
Include information about each employee’s in-office needs by adding a “Notes” column to your spreadsheet (if you’re a ChartHop user, just add it as a custom field). Note how much time employees need to spend in the office every week and whether they need to meet with other team members.
Before deciding who should return to the office, and when, you also need to consider their personal circumstances.
Which employees are willing and able to return to the office?
Because circumstances vary, you can’t assume that every employee is willing and able to return to the office right away. Instead, leaders must be sensitive to employees’ unique needs in their reopening plans. A junior analyst, for example, may be hesitant to return because she’s limited to public transportation. An accountant might need to continue working remotely because her children’s daycare still hasn’t reopened.
Gauge who could come back (and wants to come back) to the office by sending every employee a survey. Consult your legal counsel as depending on your organization, you might be able to ask about any factors that may impact their ability to return, such as the following:
- Underlying health conditions: Employees who are at risk for severe cases of COVID-19 should not be required to commute and work in the office, as that may increase their chances of getting the virus.
- Caretaker responsibilities: If employees are caring for children and sick family members during work hours, they won’t be able to commute and work in the office.
- Transportation needs: Employees who are limited to public transportation may not feel comfortable traveling to the office.
- Overall comfort level with returning and continuing to work remotely: Employees may prefer to work remotely until more is known about the virus and treatment is available.
Because this information is sensitive, explain to your workforce that their answers will be kept confidential. You should also reassure employees that their responses will not impact their job status (and include a "Prefer not not to answer" option), so they’re comfortable answering honestly.
The HR tool Great Place to Work recently surveyed their team to see how they were handling working from home, and the company’s leadership reported that the “results were enlightening.” They learned that many employees now had more caretaking responsibilities—a key factor in deciding whether they can return to the office.
To collect survey responses, many businesses use SurveyMonkey and Google Forms. Once all answers are submitted, you’re able to export the information into a spreadsheet. But take note of the risks associated with this type of data collection.
The information you’ve gathered is private and confidential, but a spreadsheet offers just two low-grade security features—password protection and setting viewing/editing permissions. Anyone who is given viewing/editing access or the password could easily copy and paste the information into a new spreadsheet.
There’s also the issue of spreadsheets’ all-or-nothing access permissions. If a user is allowed to see the file, they can see all of the information in it. That may be problematic when sharing survey responses with different department heads. The head of marketing should see their direct reports’ answers, but there’s no reason for them to see the engineering or finance department’s answers, too.
With ChartHop, collecting and storing your employee survey responses is simple and safe. Our platform is SOC 2-certified, so you can trust that your workforce’s information is secure.
We already have COVID-19 questionnaires created in one-click install bundles, so the entire surveying process can happen in one platform. Just send the questionnaires to employees, and their employee profiles will automatically update to include their responses.
To help you maintain confidentiality, our platform also lets you control what survey information users can see. You might set up permissions so the CEO can see everyone’s responses, but a VP can see answers for only their division.
When everyone has submitted their answers, filter your Data Sheet or Org Chart by different responses to see how answers vary across the board. Highlight employees who listed a factor that would make it difficult to return to the office so you know not to schedule them in workplace shifts.
How can employees return to the office in shifts?
Your workplace shifts should include only employees whose positions require that they be in the office and who are willing and able to do so.
Keep in mind, this scheduling system only works if remaining employees can continue working remotely. If not being scheduled to return to the office means being fired, you need legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons to make those choices. Learn more about the legal risks of hiring-based scheduling with this resource.
Assuming all employees are keeping their jobs—remote or not—start creating shifts by organizing your data into a new spreadsheet. List all employees who have office-dependent roles and are willing and able to return to the office. Create a new tab for every schedule shift.
A few factors to keep in mind as you create these shifts:
- Follow government guidelines about maximum sizes for gatherings. This limit will vary by location, so be sure to check your local resources.
- Refer to your notes from question one about which team members need to meet together.
- Include a balance of role types and levels in each shift. If there’s a mix of people in the office, just like there was before COVID-19, the vibe should feel more “normal” and welcoming. On the other hand, returning to the office may be uncomfortable for an employee if they’re the only member from their department to come in—or worse, if they’re the only junior-level employee surrounded by managers (or only woman!).
With ChartHop, it takes just a few clicks to see how the employees in each shift complement one another. Just create a scenario that includes the employees in a shift. The Org Chart and Data Sheet for the scenario will automatically show role titles, hierarchy, and color each employee by cohort.
Share these scenario shifts with the rest of management, so the group can make suggestions and finalize the schedule.
As COVID-19 evolves and, hopefully, more employees can return to the office, make quick adjustments in ChartHop.
Use employee data to decide how to return to the office
The COVID-19 situation is unprecedented, so there’s no single handbook for bringing employees back to the workplace. Companies must take a hard look at their own employees to decide how the organization moves forward. Use this guide to start that analysis and make a plan for returning to the office.
Even when the government lifts restrictions on nonessential offices, COVID-19 will likely continue disrupting workplaces—especially if there is a second wave of cases. Be prepared to collect and analyze more employee data, so you’re able to plan for sudden changes. The more informed your preparations are, the more agile your company will be.