For the last several weeks, our attention has rightfully been on how to protect our people and continue business to the extent possible. When employees can return to physical workspaces depends on a number of factors, but how they return is something for which we must start planning. 

Page held two member calls on this topic earlier this week, hosted by Bob Feldman of ICF Next, who recently wrote an article for Fast Company on which this recap is based. Here are some takeaways from Bob’s article and the member discussions:

  1. Complexity and Confusion:
    Unlike a natural disaster there will not be an “all clear.” Recovery and response will come to different countries and different regions at different times, creating a complex patchwork of laws and regulations. You should establish metrics and milestones that are relevant for your organization and its locations. Re-sheltering is probably inevitable, and you will need a plan for that phase as well, one that applies learnings from the first wave.
  2. Workplace Safety and Health:
    While social distancing requirements may be eased, it is unlikely they will be eliminated anytime soon. Workers will expect, and local authorities may require, changes to your physical facilities. Possible solutions - like employer screening, temperature checks, antibody tests and contact tracing - carry a host of potential privacy and liability problems but are also necessary precursors to a safe return to work, and to ensuring employee confidence that they’re being protected. One way to start working through these issues now is to assemble an advisory group of doctors, lawyers and HR experts with experience in infectious disease, public health and mental health. Doing so can also help depoliticize decision-making in what has become a politically-charged environment.
  3. Employee Fear and Anxiety:
    Culture and communication are the levers to build employee trust, showing that their health is a top priority for the business. Anxiety will persist after the health crisis subsides and history shows that pandemics often have a second wave. Many will be anxious about the continuing potential for infection. Beyond the medical anxieties lie others: If daycare centers and/or schools are not yet fully open, parents will need to care for at-home children. Employees who have gone weeks or months without pay will likely be facing serious financial hardship and may have a spouse or partner who is still unemployed, all of which can take a huge psychological toll, the lasting impact of which has yet to be understood.

Employers will need to deal sensitively and realistically with these issues. That will likely mean continued flexibility about travel and remote working, provision of counseling and related employee assistance programs, flexible approaches to leave policies that allow individuals to care for sick family members, among others. 

Answers are owed to millions of people who right now are working hard through this, some at risk to their lives. Others are enduring layoffs and great hardship. When the time comes to return to work, they deserve well-considered and easily understood policies.  

Special thanks to moderator Bob Feldman, vice chair of ICF Next and his guest, public health professional Meghan Treber, for providing expertise on both the virus and its implications, and for leading an active discussion.