6 Checklist Items for HR to Ensure a Safe Return to Office Spaces

by John Calderon on June 01, 2020

Though we are hardly out of the woods yet with regards to COVID-19, employers and employees alike are naturally beginning to think about what work life will look like when non-essential personnel return to offices. In particular, public sector agencies may not have the luxury to remain at home indefinitely – or perhaps they never went home at all – because of the nature of the services they provide to local communities.

A recent report from Gartner found that 82% of HR leaders will be involved in the planning of the return to offices. With a plethora of items to consider to not only maintain productivity but also keep everyone safe, HR must put a plan in place to ensure the return to the office is done judiciously and effectively.

Bearing that in mind, we put together an overview for HR leaders to contemplate as they send employees back into the office.

  1. Avoid being the “first” if possible. While many agencies will not have a choice, it’s important that you are not hasty in forcing a return to the office if you don’t need to be. Consider what has transpired in the last few months and assess a best return date from there – which, it’s important to note, will most likely not be a “one size fits all” for your entire agency, especially due to social distancing recommendations (SHRM noted in a recent study that staggering employee returns in phases will be a common approach). 

Using a phased approach that prioritizes getting certain departments or individuals back to the workplace is a good place to start. Are there employees that can’t get critical aspects of their jobs done from home? For those that have been at home, has their productivity decreased, stayed constant, or increased? Taking the time to answer these questions will help you understand who will most benefit by going back into the office and who might be able to work remotely for longer without adversely impacting the organization.

  1. Think about logistics for making the office safe. Chances are the office environment pre-pandemic is not suitable for a COVID-19 impacted world. Changes to the physical layout of the office, air flow circulation, deep cleaning protocols, occupancy limits, and having a stockpile of supplies like sanitizer and cleaning wipes should all be top of mind. You’ll need to plan with facilities and maintenance stakeholders to make sure all of these needs are met before an employee steps foot back into the building. Additionally, 67% of HR leaders planned to train their employees on new safety protocols before they returned to their desks (source: Gartner). Using a remote education tool like Learn is a good option for easily creating training courses that can be assigned to employees with due dates and automated email reminders.

  1. Anticipate reducing face-to-face interactions. Operational considerations will also have to be addressed, with an emphasis on how to best approach touching shared surfaces and assets (the printer, for example) as well as job functions that require people to physically engage. Paper processes will be a particularly hot topic because of the nature of how the virus spreads. Indeed, hand-to-hand contact is no longer ideal and may even be dangerous, meaning that the amount of paperwork will need to be reduced. In general, the movement of employees around the office and in shared spaces should be reduced to mitigate risk. By using a SaaS platform like NEOGOV , you can both reduce risk and improve outdated business processes. 

  1. Effectively communicate with employees. According to Gartner research, HR professionals feel that their chief responsibility for returning to the office is to communicate the strategy to employees. Making sure you are sharing the organization’s plan for returning to the workplace and the preparations that are being made to ensure safe redeployment is crucial in promoting employee trust. That means providing specific dates when they are agreed upon by the organization, making employees aware of new safety protocols, and keeping them informed of changes to the physical layout of the office. Consider doing a bimonthly update, whether over video conference, email, or an internal social and communication platform to let employees know their questions are being heard and answered accordingly.  

  2. Expect to manage two workforces – one on-site and one remote. Undoubtedly, some individual contributors will have an easier time working remotely than others and therefore should be encouraged to do so. That means you and some of the department heads in your organization will be managing a hybrid workforce. Being aware and managing ahead of this new dynamic will be key, as it may cause on-site employees to feel disproportionately visible or the inverse for remote workers. 

For managers expected to oversee both in-office and remote employees, encourage video calls and regular check-ins with the entire team in addition to 1:1 meetings with remote direct reports to level the playing field. Additionally, streamlining performance measurement and learning opportunities using software can ensure that all employees get the same experience. NEOGOV’s Develop module provides a way for managers to regularly conduct employee check-ins, track performance, and nurture growth with individualized learning curriculums.

  1. Prepare for the worst. By now, it has become abundantly clear that our country was not ideally prepared for a pandemic of this scope. Testing and prevention of exposure efforts lag behind where they need to be. Because of this, regardless of how thorough and well-executed an organization’s return to work plan is, there are factors beyond our control that will put employees at risk. That’s why HR leaders also need to consider how they’ll accommodate employees who are exposed to the virus, become sick, or need to take time off to care for a close friend or family member. 

Anticipating potential scenarios and defining processes for needs like contact tracing, telework requests, time off requests to recover from an illness or support a loved one, or even donating time to another employee in need will help ensure a smooth transition back to the office. 

Look at automated cloud-based solutions that enable HR to create forms that can be submitted online and routed through an electronic approval process from anywhere. 

Future challenges remain unknown. Unfortunately, this may not be the last we’ll see of the virus, nor will it be the last disaster (natural or otherwise) that could upend the way we work. What we do know is that we need to develop an adaptable workforce that has the tools they need to thrive whether they’re working in a traditional office environment or from a remote home office. 

John Calderon

John Calderon is the Content Strategist at NEOGOV. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from University of California, Los Angeles and has spent over a decade creating content as a marketing professional and journalist. Contact John: jcalderon@neogov.net