When the pandemic forced the majority of employees to work from home, many leaders anticipated that Labor Day would mark the return to the workplace. It didn’t.

In the U.S., Labor Day is a milestone that marks the country’s goodbye to the vacation fun of summer and its plans to head back—to school, to the office, to “real life.” This year was different, though. Many spent the holiday like we’ve spent every other day for the last six months—at home and unsure about what happens next.

This uncertainty is breeding anxiety. In a recent survey, 69 percent of workers identified this year as the most stressful time in their careers. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also found anxiety and depression symptoms have increased by three-fold since 2019 and a quarter of the people said they had mental-health symptoms related to the pandemic. These alarming numbers have many companies weighing options to reopen workplaces so workers can have a break from the social isolation and a chance to reestablish some normal work routines.

But whether and how people return to the workplace can cause fear and anxiety, according to the CDC. They found that employees’ biggest concerns include fears of being exposed to the virus, uncertainty about the future of their workplace, uneasiness about adapting to different workspaces, and feelings of insecurity about their productivity in a remote work environment.

So, while Labor Day was designed to celebrate the American worker, this year, employers should use it as an opportunity to start planning employees’ return to the workplace in a way that honors their contributions. This means prioritizing efforts to protect their health, safety and well-being.

But what are the key components? Work is being reimagined at every level—from where, to how, to what we do. Given that, how do employers develop return to the workplace plans that are thoughtful, supportive, and can help create stability now and in the future? What steps can they take to help employees feel confident in those measures, but also in their own productivity? Here are some guiding principles:

1.) Put people first.

Two vital pieces of any return to the workplace plan are flexibility and options. A recent survey found that 40 percent of workers want employers to incorporate remote work as a part of their plans. Providing an option for remote work or flexible hours would be especially helpful to the many parents whose children are stuck at home as well as provide some peace of mind to employees with health conditions that make them especially vulnerable to covid-19.

2.) Involve employees.

Employers should invite employees to be a part of the planning process. While leaders must manage potential risks, keeping the workplace open and safe depends on everyone’s willingness to follow safety protocols, so seeking input can help catch issues early on. For example, if a goal of reopening a facility is to increase social interaction, employees might not feel the interaction they get from staying six feet apart while wearing masks is worth a daily commute, but they might be open to coming in 2-3 times a week.

3.) Prioritize communication.

Given how rapidly circumstances can change, having a smooth and swift flow of information is critical for reopening a workplace. Companies must have a system in place to communicate information in real-time so that people can feel like they’re being kept in the loop and can make informed choices about their personal health. Apps are the easiest way to engage employees, give them quick access to key updates as well as an avenue to ask questions of leaders. From location openings to self-reporting systems to delivering services and benefits, employers can use apps to put a communication stream (literally) in the hands of their people, regardless of if they are at home or in the office.

4.) Manage workspaces.

Walking through an office door can feel risky these days, so employers will need to be able react quickly to potential health threats. Start by tracking how many people are in a workspace and conduct health screenings or testing to make sure no one is coming to work sick. However, this must be done while protecting employees’ sensitive healthcare information and securely managing employee opt-in and consent.

If a covid-19 case does occur, that information will need to be pulled together quickly for contact tracing and so leaders can make decisions about whether to stay open or send people home. Additionally, leaders must remember that employees don’t live in a vacuum and may come in contact with others in the community. Therefore, a company should also look at information from trusted third-party resources such as the CDC, local and state agencies, the World Health Organization, and others, to make decisions about their return to the workplace plans. Many companies could also benefit from tools that use predictive risk modeling so they can identify potential trends early and create responses.

5.) Rethink facilities.

Gone are the days of close collaboration spaces and packed meeting rooms. Instead, employers have to reimagine their spaces to allow employees to be both productive and safe. That means reconfiguring desks to adhere to social distancing guidelines, allowing employees to reserve space in advance, setting occupancy limits for meeting rooms and even making outdoor space the new “office.” It could also mean reimagining spaces—employers can give old spots a new purpose and create special places for key face-to-face meetings, important collaborations and team gathering. On a more practical note, rethinking facilities may also mean installing new ventilation systems, instituting more robust cleaning protocols, redesigning break rooms for more social distancing and adding sanitizing stations and new signage. Lastly, if an organization does not have dedicated facilities and crisis management teams, now is the time to consider adding them. Both teams play a key role in managing onsite needs, and can further demonstrate to employees that their leaders are serious about health and safety.

For many people, the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and the lingering economic impact is stressful. There may not be a one-size-fits-all plan for reopening a business during a pandemic, but employers can ultimately relieve some of the uncertainty employees are experiencing by crafting return to the workplace plans that put employees’ safety and well-being first. If leaders can agree to make that the priority, individuals, businesses and society can become stronger in a post-pandemic world.

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


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