Your Top 5 Return-to-Work Questions, Addressed

Last week Mercer hosted a panel discussion to address the actions employers can take to protect their employees when they return to the workplace. Here are the top five return-to-work questions employers asked us during the webcast and our suggestions for finding the best answers for your organization.

  1. How do we determine when to return employees to the workplace

    Follow the lead of your state and local officials, and remember that just because you may be “allowed” to reopen the worksite, does not mean you should do so immediately. Before reopening, having a plan in place is critical, and you will likely need to plan for a phased reopening.

    Consider what you need to do to keep your employees safe. To start, you’ll need to implement rigorous cleaning procedures that follow CDC recommendations. Do you have the needed supplies on hand to implement these procedures? Examples include masks, hand sanitizer, soap, and cleaners/disinfectants. (Check your supply of toilet paper as well.) In an ongoing Mercer survey on COVID-19, the vast majority of nearly 500 US employers that responded are taking action to protect their workforce, such as by enhancing cleaning and disinfecting (91%) and by providing masks (62%).

    Also consider whether your employees have a safe method to commute to work. If the only option is crowded public transportation, evaluate the safety measures that local transportation officials are taking. If you have jobs that can be done 100% via telework, you may decide to keep that employee at home a while longer.

  2. Do we need to make physical modifications to the worksite before employees return?

    The COVID-19 pandemic could mark the beginning of the end of the open floor plan. Physical distancing is the only truly effective method of slowing the spread of COVID-19, so it’s recommended to position employee workstations at least six-feet apart. In locations where physical distancing can’t be achieved, we’ve seen employers install plastic curtains or Plexiglas between employees (32% of survey respondents say they will take this step). Also, determine whether you’ll require employees to wear masks in the office. Don’t forget to consider how to achieve physical distancing in common areas such as lunch/break rooms, workout facilities and even elevators. Throughout the workspace, you’ll want to use markers to help employees and customers maintain distance.

  3. Should we conduct onsite screening to identify infected employees?

    A central element in all return-to-work plans is safeguarding the workplace to protect employees and mitigate risk of infection. Employers are considering return-to-work strategies that would have been off the table just a few months ago, but these days all measures for creating a safe work environment should be considered. In a recent blog post, Dr. Dave Zieg walked through the current safety measures including screening questionnaires, temperature screening and antibody and viral testing. According to Mercer’s COVID-19 survey, about a third of employers are planning to perform some type of health screening onsite, most commonly temperature checks and an on-site questionnaire and/or self-assessment. While we’ve received some guidance on screening employees, it is important for employers to stay informed about what may be required in their geographic locations.

  4.  When we’re ready to re-open, how do we return employees to the worksite?

    As you establish how and when your employees should return to the workplace, work through how to recall furloughed and reduced-hour employees. Don’t expect to return everyone to the office at once. Implement alternative working arrangements to minimize potential exposure. Mercer’s leaders in Asia established several alternative work arrangements, including extending work from home arrangements, changes to shifts and start times and split team arrangements – meaning members of the same team are allocated throughout the floor or building next to non-team members to reduce the risk of infection between employees on the same team and to safeguard productivity.

    In addition to logistical plans, think about what you can do to ensure your employees are productive, physically well and mentally strong. You may need to implement flexible working arrangements to accommodate employees caring for elderly relatives, infected family members or children at home due to daycare and school closings. Many schools and summer camps have closed for the remainder of the year, making it difficult for some employees to be in the office.

    Importantly, some employees may be grieving a COVID-19-related loss and need additional support, and all will need to know they are returning to a safe workplace. It is essential to address lingering anxiety,  as this drains engagement and productivity.

  5. Is it possible to over-communicate and overwhelm our employees?

    During uncertain times, it’s better to over-communicate. You’ll want to craft clear and concise messaging that shows empathy to the struggles that your employees face. Be transparent about the state of your business and what’s next. Commit to setting expectations and telling your employees what the return-to-work process will look like, what’s going to happen, how things will be different and how they will need to act differently when they return. Don’t wait to begin communicating once plans are finalized. Begin communicating now and tell them the situation is fluid so you’ll be adjusting and refining your plans as you go. Reinforce that you are following all the latest recommendations and clearly articulate them to employees. Moreover, remember that perception matters. Take actions to (1) show you care; (2) ensure your worksite is a safe place to work; and (3) show that we’re all in this together.

If you’re interested in participating in a virtual cross-functional workshop with Mercer and Marsh subject matter experts to develop a prescriptive roadmap for returning employees to their worksite please contact your Mercer consultant.

Stephanie Henkenius
by Stephanie Henkenius

Mercer’s Center for Health Innovation and the US Healthcare Reform team

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