June 8, 2021

The HR Leader's Return-to-Office Checklist

The Nava Team

For the first time since the start of the pandemic, the future is looking bright — and, if you can believe it, normal. Covid rates are on the decline, and half the population is now vaccinated. And across the country, thousands of businesses are reopening their doors to welcome employees back.

But as we've learned from our Nava advisors, reopening your office won't be that simple. There are many variables to take into consideration first — and a lot of pressure to get return-to-work right.

Based on insights from Nava's Chief Medical Advisor (and Covid expert) Dr. Marty Makary and Delta's Managing Director for Global Rewards Kelley Elliott, here's all you need to know (and do) to welcome folks back safely.

First, set your return-to-office timeline.

We get it — once you're given the "all clear" to reopen, you may be eager to see your teams again soon. But this isn't something to rush. There are several moving pieces to hammer down before welcoming folks back.

Start by setting a target reopening date that accounts for the time needed to complete all these other steps first. Then work backwards to set target completion dates for each outstanding item.

But as much as we wish we could give you a solid one-size-fits-all answer to when you can reopen, this will differ for each employer. Instead, we recommend that you make this decision based on the whole picture.

Here's what you should consider when setting a reopening date:

Your company's unique culture, mission, and goals

Is in-person collaboration essential to your mission or day-to-day priorities? Do your teams rely on being face-to-face to get the job done? Are your employees primarily customer-facing? Then you might want to prioritize re-opening as soon as it's safe to do so.

On the other hand — is in-person collaboration just a "nice to have"? Have your teams been doing just fine while working remotely? Do they have the tech and support to foster collaboration while they're apart? Then you may have more flexibility with your timeline.

Vaccination rate among your employees

The experts have agreed — this vaccine is the key to putting the pandemic behind us. And it's safe. "It may be one of the safest things we've ever developed in medicine, the mRNA vaccine," says Dr. Makary.

But can employers require their employees to prove that they're vaccinated? That's still a grey area. Even if you legally can, enforcing this policy may make your employees uncomfortable. Many people have made the decision not to get the vaccine, for various health or personal reasons.

Still, you'll need to have a general sense of how many of your employees have been vaccinated. This knowledge is key to determining the kind of precautions you should take — masks or no masks, for example.

So instead of requiring proof of vaccination, encourage your employees to share their vaccination status with your HR team at will. At Delta, for instance, employees have the option to complete an online form to share their status.

Remember, people are considered fully vaccinated when at least two weeks have passed since their second dose in a two-dose series (such as the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines), or their single-dose vaccine (such as Johnson & Johnson's Janssen vaccine).

Covid cases and vaccination rates in your community

You'll want to base your reopening policies and procedures off of the current state of the pandemic — for the nation, your community, and your employee base. The CDC Covid Data Tracker will be your best resource for keeping tabs on these numbers.

Your employees' wellbeing and obligations

Taking folks' perspectives and sensitivities into consideration will help prevent burnout, low morale, and anxiety. We suggest employers issue an anonymous survey to get a better sense of how folks are feeling.

Here are some good questions to include:

  • Do you feel safe and supported with the idea of returning to work under the precautions we have previously announced?
  • If you are not comfortable returning to the office, what factors are contributing to this concern?
  • Will you require some form of accommodation when returning to the office?
  • If given the choice, would you prefer to continue working remotely?

Then try to build your reopening timeline with some flexibility for your teams' personal obligations. For example, Delta intentionally set their return-to-office date after local schools break for summer, to accommodate parents whose children are still doing virtual learning.

Next, communicate with your employees.

Considering how polarizing this announcement could be, we understand why you would want to hold your cards close to your chest. But this is a great opportunity to build trust and transparency, and demonstrate your employer's respect for its people.

Instead, communicate openly and often. Answer any and all questions. Make it clear that your employees (and their safety) are the priority here.

Share your reopening date as soon as it's finalized — and include buffer time.

You don't want to announce that the office is reopening starting tomorrow. Everybody will have logistics to sort out before resuming in-office work, so give them time to get their ducks in a row.

A good rule of thumb: at least 30 days between the announcement and the reopening date.

Let them ease back into office life.

Don't try to go from 0 to 100 on in-office work. If possible, give your employees some transition time where they can choose to stagger their in-office days and ease back into the swing of things.

Tell them what to expect in terms of precautions.

Your office may look different than it did before. Don't let this be a surprise. Giving employees a heads up on these precautions will serve two purposes:

First, this sets expectations for their own behavior. For instance, if they know in advance that they're expected to wear a mask, they'll probably be more likely to have a mask on hand.

Second, this will help the Covid-anxious take comfort in the knowledge that they're safe. For example, they may feel more at ease entering a meeting room if they know it's been cleaned and disinfected earlier that day.

Lead with an open mind and open ears.

Everyone has their own perspectives on the pandemic. That has caused a lot of these conversations to become steeped in tension and politics.

Not everyone will agree with the decision you make. But showing that you care about your employees' unique situations can help dissolve tension.

At Delta, managers have received training on "motivational listening," with an emphasis on approaching conversations with empathy and sensitivity.

"When you have these conversations with people," Kelley explains, "it's all about, 'yes, I hear you. We know there's concerns. Tell me about your concerns.' Try to react in a way that's very different than just providing facts, because that can make people close off."

Send employees their own return-to-office checklist.

Just like you're gearing up for this return, your staff will also have their own preparations to complete first. And because you're here reading this right now, we can assume that having these steps written out can help make the process more manageable.

So share some preliminary to-dos to get them ready. (We've even put one together for you to send — so you can check this off your own list.)

Determine the precautions you'll take in-office.

We won't sugarcoat it — reopening as normal will still carry some risks. Protect your staff (and help them feel safe) by adopting come precautionary practices at first.

Set a science-backed mask policy, based on goals and guideposts.

Masks or no masks? According to the CDC, people who are fully vaccinated can resume their normal activities without a mask. But only half the population is fully vaccinated, and removing masks for all may increase the risk of transmission.

Some employers (including Delta) have adopted a policy that calls for masks unless you're fully vaxxed. However, this is difficult to enforce; you may have to rely on the honor code and trust that your employees will be truthful about their vaccination status.

Still, it may be easier for employers to enforce a blanket mask mandate regardless of vaccination status. That will ensure that everyone stays safe and feels equal.

Your employees may be more open to following mask guidelines if you set a timeline for mask removal that's based on specific goals. For example, Delta determined that they would only adapt their mask policy if 75% of their employees are vaccinated, and their local community Covid rate is below 10 per 100K.

But always keep an eye on the numbers.

We're not out of the woods just yet. Although Covid rates are on the decline, these things can change quickly. Monitor your community's case count, hospitalization metrics, and vaccination rates, and don't hesitate to reinstate precautions if necessary.

Looking for more advice on in-office safety practices? OSHA's Guidance on Returning to Work is a good place to start.

Review your policies and update as needed.

Just like your physical office may look different now, your policies and procedures may need a refresh to meet new safety standards. Remember, these changes don't have to be permanent — but for now, it might be what's best to keep your people safe.

Revisit your visitors policy.

Depending on your culture and business strategies, you may want to put a hold on welcoming external guests, ramp up your check-in procedures, or require them to wear masks at all times.

Determine your employer's stance on work travel and live events.

As Dr. Makary explained, "Even if they feel that they would be safe, people are not necessarily going to sign up for a conference in the fall."

For the time being, it may be best to err on the side of caution when it comes to events. If an event is scheduled, let your employees choose whether or not to attend. Be sure to provide alternatives for those who can't make it.

Create a welcoming environment.

Some employees can't wait to get back to their desk and their teams. For others, the thought of returning to in-person work may be anxiety-provoking.

But everyone wants this to be a positive experience. So set the tone for a happy (and safe) reunion by following these best practices.

Ramp up on mental health.

After a year marked by stress and loss, returning to work can trigger mental health concerns. Knowing this, we think that mental health will be the most important benefit employers can offer in 2021.

Support your employees' mental wellbeing during this transition (and beyond) by building out your mental healthcare benefits plan and fostering a healthy and supportive workplace culture.

Help your teams navigate the new social standards.

Should we shake hands? Hug? Or keep our distance? Everyone will be returning with a different comfort level — and things may get awkward at first.

Help reduce the tension by kicking off the conversation first. Surveys can help gauge your teams' comfort and preferences.

Some employers are giving their staff the option to communicate their boundaries by wearing color-coded bracelets. Green means go ahead with hi-fives and handshakes, while red asks for six feet of distance.

"We're advising people to only do what they're comfortable with," Kelley explained. "We just all have to be a little bit more aware of our actions and understand that some people may be different. We're not going to judge people for acting and behaving a little bit differently right now."

It's your reopening, you can party if you want to.

Reuniting colleagues after over a year apart — sounds like a good cause for celebration!

Choosing to frame reopening in a positive light may also ease tensions, get your employees excited to return, and signal your employer's optimistic vision for a post-pandemic future.

Hosting a social event can also help rebuild any bonds that may have waned over a Zoom-filled year. "We're trying to build back to this community feel," Kelley emphasized, when discussing Delta's plan to host a Chill-and-Grill welcome-back event. "It's like bringing your family together again."

Moving forward

If you're reopening with extra precautions, you probably have a goal to scale back to normalcy over time.

According to Dr. Makary, here's the order for which you should roll back restrictions over time:

  1. Deep cleaning
  2. Social distancing
  3. Plexiglass dividers
  4. Masking

But remember that things change day by day — and we can't tell the future. As Dr. Makary said, "Herd immunity is not binary. It's not a finish line where, all of a sudden, you're free of the virus and it's extinguished. It is significant slowing that increases over time."

So don't throw out those masks or plexiglass dividers just yet. In case of backsliding, you'll want the option to reinstate precautions.

Building your return-to-office strategy may not be easy, but don't lose sight of what matters: bringing your people back together. And let's be honest — after what we've been through in the last year, this will be easy by comparison. You've got this.

Looking for a reopening guide for your employees? No worries — we already have one ready for you.

Check out our new return-to-office hub for all you need to know to welcome your teams back safely.

Want to share this checklist with your team? Here's a printer-friendly version:

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