By John Beattie, Principal Consultant, Sungard AS

Organisations across the world have been entrenched in dealing with the business challenges and changes resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. This has included transitioning staff to remote working and the rapid closure of workplaces for the first time in the history of many companies.

While most have been successful in adapting to this unprecedented situation, in time, there will be a post-pandemic transition back to normal. Its therefore vital that companies carefully plan for and closely monitor this process, both to minimise disruption and to be empathetic to the health and safety concerns of the workforce all while complying with governmental and health authority guidelines.

Whether an organisation will be returning to business as usual, or an entirely new-normal, workforces will be anxious to get back to their primary workplaces, as a definitive step away from uncertainty, and movement towards calmer and more predictable times.

In reopening workplaces, companies face a myriad of issues in deciding whether and how to re-open for business. While governments haggle over who will decide what can re-open and under what circumstances, employers should start preparing now. For international and national organisations with multiple sites, preparation should already be under way.

Though return-to-work considerations are evolving, here are four considerations that all companies should take into account to ensure a workplace is ready for employees to return to.

Has a ‘working group’ been assembled, and a leader designated to focus on planning for post-pandemic workplace re-openings?

Good project management discipline should be applied to assembling a team and leader to focus on this task. It’s important, as it’ll instill confidence across the workforce and minimise business disruption through the transition.

A group should include senior level personnel from across the organisation, including representation from HR, facilities management, physical security, legal, information and communications technology, information security, Business Continuity, risk and of course operations.

Have common and site-specific actions been developed to prepare workplaces for safe and controlled re-population?

It’s essential that an organisation’s workforce is comfortable about returning to a safe workplace, and that they know that their wellbeing is front of mind by senior management. Efforts should include pre- and post-return cleaning and sanitising of all areas, maintenance of inactive equipment, and the return of equipment shipped to remote working destinations that’s needed back in the office.

Work as usual is unlikely to return straight away, so organisations should consider short and long-term social distancing and density reduction both when at-rest and when in-motion within the workplace and both short and long-term limitations on non-essential common areas and equipment (eg. staff rooms, coffee makers, fridges). Organisations also need to establish new guidelines for the use of conference rooms, and perhaps reduce the number of chairs in each. They might also consider continuing with virtual meetings for a month or so, even with many people back in the office.

Has the organisation determined the logical sequencing and scheduling of bringing back employees to primary workplaces?

For most organisations, it won’t be necessary to have every employee return to the office straight away, or even during the same week, so business leaders should carefully consider the sequencing. Many organisations so far plan to have multiple waves to streamline the process, with wave one including:

  • Management across all levels
  • Human Resources personnel
  • Those with private offices
  • And personnel that perform jobs that cannot be done remotely
Due consideration needs to be given to:
  • Syncing up with school and mass-transit re-openings
  • The potential challenges of a mass return in a single day
  • Understanding different stay at home orders across various jurisdictions where personnel reside
Its recommended that IT help desk personnel do not return until the third wave, to avoid being confronted with IT issues face-to-face at their desks.

Lastly, it’s inevitable that there’ll be significant levels of conversation about business related and personal experiences as people first return. Organisations should consider setting up virtual department video chats prior to starting the return to workplace transition, in order to diffuse some of the office chatter when people are back.

Has the organisation considered continuing to have some personnel work remotely for an extended time period to be on the safe side of pandemic multi-wave characteristics?

The media has made everyone acutely aware of the wave aspects of a pandemic, and with COVID-19, the potential for people being infected multiple times. Organisations must address this risk and consider delaying the return of individuals that have a unique or sole source skill set and stagger the return of entire departments where there is not similar expertise at other locations.

Regardless of the extent to which an organisation has been affected, it is recommended that a post-pandemic return to workplace plan consider the following:

  • Assigning a multi-disciplinary working group to commence planning for post-pandemic workplace reopening (include HR, facilities, legal, IT, information and physical security)
  • Addressing the differences and commonalities across work locations, with each having an individual plan in place
  • Developing multiple plan versions, if necessary, to address business cycles as well as different seasonality challenges within an organisation – this is also important because we just don’t know when we’ll be given the all clear to return, so a plan may need to be different in June to July
  • Measures to gain reasonable confidence that the people returning to their primary workplace are healthy, and they in turn want to be comfortable that you have taken good precautions on their behalf
Planning and validating plans

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the quality of working environments in sharp focus, with the world of work now changed forever.

For a long time, many may have overlooked health, wellbeing, and community with digital connectivity being treated as a bonus rather than a necessity. When the workforce returns to the office, these considerations must be front of mind. Employee safety is by far the most important factor for a successful organisation, and we must all recognise how drastically this has come into focus and plan accordingly for when workers return to their desks.