Best practices for returning to the office

A person seated in front of a laptop rubs hand sanitizer on their hands.

Millions of employees have adjusted to working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of them may soon be re-adjusting as businesses resume in-office work.

But the workplaces they return to will differ from those they left. Crowded cubicles will be gone; health screenings will emerge.

“We have proven our ability to work successfully outside of the office, despite challenges, and we are taking care not to rush back as we prioritize the safety, well-being and confidence of our teammates,” said Tim State, senior vice president, Associate Health and Well-being, for Humana. “Most important is ensuring we’re taking care of our people. We need to remain flexible and agile in our approach because the support needed by our employees, customers and business is ever-changing and there are still several unknowns.”

Over 90% of Humana’s 45,000 employees have been working remotely since shortly after the first COVID-19 case at a company workspace was reported on March 12, 2020. An enterprise-wide team, including State, have since been creating a detailed, multi-phased return to work plan. “Employees are going through a lot, which will continue. Physical and psychological safety is going to be key to ensuring a healthy, productive re-entry,” State said. “It is critical that teammates feel confident and trust they’ll be cared for as they walk back into the office.”

State offers the following guidance to employers based on Humana's experience forming its return to work plans.

The return to work landscape changes daily

“We are planning something for which there is no direct precedent,” State said. “Businesses need to be hyper-aware and adaptive.” Guidance also varies by industry, company size and location. “What seems to be consistent everywhere is the need for a phased approach, realizing that merely jumping back in as we were before isn’t an option.”

Companies must accommodate variability in health and business conditions. Businesses may have to send workers home again if reported cases grow rapidly in their company, city or state.

Employers can stay current on federal policy via Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19, PDF opens new window as provided by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), opens new window as provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

People are anxious

“On a personal level, the consistency we’re seeing across the board is that people continue to be anxious—and understandably so,” State said. “There has been a dramatic, sustained change to our daily lives with impacts on financial, physical and emotional health.”

Some employees may resist returning to offices as they worry about compromising their health or transmitting an infection to loved ones who may be more at risk of contracting COVID-19. Workers also may worry about foregoing caregiving responsibilities that they may not have had before the pandemic.

Multiple, interconnected aspects of people’s lives have been disrupted, so a whole-person approach is crucial. Employers need to support employees’ well-being, addressing the sense of purpose, health, belonging and security in their work and lives.

Start planning return to work plans early

A return to work plan should outline the processes, requirements or restrictions that an employer intends to put in place to enable employees to return to work safely, both physically and psychologically, as well as necessary communication with employees.

The leadership team of a company or organization can anticipate possible problems and address them better when they form plans early. State says Humana’s return to work plan is adapted continually to apply learnings and changing conditions.

Every detail matters. Consider how your employees can move through the entire building while practicing social distancing. The plan should include precautions for high-traffic areas including elevators, doorways, surfaces in common areas and staircases. The plan should cover safety during peak arrival and departure times and mealtime rush hour.

Physical safety considerations include:

  • Creating or updating disinfection and cleaning protocols, especially for common spaces
  • Providing the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), personal hygiene products and sanitizing stations
  • Accommodating social distancing practices
  • Considering appropriate screening, including daily temperature checks

Psychological safety considerations

“Addressing the psychological safety of employees has to start with understanding the unprecedented emotional needs that employees will be bringing with them when the doors open,” State said. “Employees will be grappling with concerns of both catching the virus and the risk of potentially exposing their family, colleagues or others. That reality, combined with other uncertainties and pressure means many people sometimes won’t be at their best, so employers need to continually find ways to help their employees speak up for support and build resilience together.”

Encourage employees to practice self-care and ease their return by giving them tools—such as tips for recognizing and addressing their emotional needs and maintaining a healthy work environment.

Instilling confidence

“It is critical that you have an open approach that employees feel confident about—it must be organized, rational, clear and easy to follow,” State said. Ways to build confidence in the workplace include health screenings, cleaning and hygiene, and social distancing. Plans can be adjusted to incorporate employee feedback.

Additional tips to implement the plan are:

  • Communicate clearly.
  • Be transparent in decisions and changes.
  • Commit to consistency.
  • Adapt based on new learnings.

Listening to employees is critical

Who better than employees to assess their sense of safety and well-being? Soliciting input early and frequently—and acting upon it effectively—helps address needs and build confidence. For example, employees may experience something in their environment or a coworker’s behavior that needs attention. They may also have personal concerns about reentering a work facility to begin with. Listening to employee sentiment has been central to Humana’s internal actions since the onset of COVID-19, informing a range of responses from special caregiving PTO and related financial relief to understanding employee readiness for reentry. “This is why continuous listening is critical, beyond reentry and ongoing,” State said.

Communication is key

Employees should know what to anticipate before they return to work. Changes may be necessary across a variety of daily routines as employees keep themselves and their coworkers safe. Messaging should include “the why,” so employees understand and can fully support the rationale for change. Communicate through channels like email, text messages and workplace signage so everyone stays up-to-date.

“Until the days when a successful vaccine becomes available, there’s going to be ambient risk,” State said. “Employers have to control what they can to make the new work environment one of the safest places employees will be. And when that environment takes care of employee well-being on the whole, individuals and the organization can still thrive, no matter the circumstances.”