Creating a Return to Work Plan: How to Safely Reopen Your Office


Max Shepherd-Cross


January 20, 2022

While you may not have the answer to “When will the Covid-19 pandemic end,” you’ve likely thought about the all-important question your employees have, “When will I need to return to the office?”

You need to prepare for the big day. You don’t want your office to become a breeding ground for COVID-19. And you can't ignore your employees' concerns about returning to work. While the former might lead to office closure yet again, the latter might lead to employee resistance and maybe even cause your best talent to leave.

To successfully reopen your office, you’ll need the right mix of safety measures, proactive communication with employees, and policies to address evolving employee needs.

Guidelines to Return to Work Safely During Covid-19

Global health agencies like the World Health Organization (WHO) and governmental agencies like Occupational Safety and Health Administration (U.S. and Europe), Center for Disease Control (CDC-U.S.), and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE-UK) have provided guidance for businesses to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in the workplace. They include several of these steps in their recommendations.

Ventilation in indoor spaces: Use windows, doors, vents, and mechanical ventilation through ducts and fans to ensure your office spaces have a steady supply of fresh air.

Sanitization of spaces: Clean office spaces and high-touch surfaces like desks, keyboards, elevator buttons, light switches, doorknobs, and sinks once a day. It’s best to both clean and disinfect workspaces with poor ventilation, a large number of people, or people at a high risk of developing Covid-19. Disinfecting involves using chemicals like bleaching agents to clean surfaces, which kills germs on them. If someone has tested positive for Covid-19 within 24 hours, clean and disinfect their workspace, office, and spaces they frequented, like the cafeteria, too.

Use of hand wash, sanitizer, and masks: Equip facilities with ample soap, hand wash, and alcohol-based hand sanitizers (60-90% alcohol), so employees can wash their hands regularly. You’ll also need to mandate wearing face masks (for vaccinated employees, too) when working indoors. Employees working outdoors should also wear masks when they come in close contact with others.

Capacity management: Place employee desks at least 6 feet (1.8 meters) away from each other. Avoid overcrowding of office spaces during lunch hours and breaks. Use multiple work shifts, hybrid work policies, and staggered meal breaks to enable physical distancing in the office.

Health Screening and Support for Ill Workers: Inform workers about common symptoms of Covid-19 like dry cough, shortness of breath, fever, and loss of taste. Encourage workers with any symptoms to self-isolate at home. Reinforce this policy by offering income support programs and quarantine allowances.

Contact tracing: If an employee tests positive for Covid-19, inform your local health authorities and help them with contact tracing. Contact tracing allows you to track and notify anyone who has come in close contact with a person who has tested positive. A close contact is anyone who may have been less than 6 feet (1.8 meters) away from an infected person for more than 15 minutes during a 24-hour period. Help health authorities communicate next steps to close contacts, including quarantine or getting tested.

Vaccination: Encourage employees to get vaccinated against Covid-19. While OSHA (U.S.) had released a temporary emergency standard stating that workplaces with at least 100 employees should either get all their workers vaccinated or ask them to wear a mask and test on a weekly basis for Covid-19, the rule was suspended in January 2022.

Covid-19 Return to Work Checklist for Employers

Before reopening your office, prepare your office by gauging employee sentiment and creating safe procedures.

Use this quick checklist to safeguard your business against Covid-19 as well as common post-pandemic problems like employee resignation and retention.

#1. Run an Employee Return to Work Survey

return to work survey covid-19
Employee return to work survey

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Not all of your employees might feel comfortable returning to work, with the threat of the Covid-19 virus still looming. Surveys have shown a strong employee preference to work from home at least a few days a week, even post-pandemic. Before you declare business as usual, send employee return to work surveys to find out if employees are ready to come back to work and what they need to be successful.

We’ve written a detailed guide for creating a return to work survey for employees post Covid-19, and here’s a list of questions to understand employee preferences:

  • How comfortable do you feel coming back into the office?
  • What are your major concerns about returning?
  • Which working arrangements (hybrid, remote, in-office) do you prefer most?
  • What are your major concerns about hybrid work?
  • How many days a week would you like to come to the office? Which days and for how long?
  • Which activities will you use the office for (collaborative, deep work, casual brainstorming)?

#2. Prepare Your Office and Employees for Reopening Safely

covid-19 guidelines for workplaces
COVID-19 office posters

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Adopting a few important tools and practices that have helped mitigate the disease globally will help you to implement Covid-19 guidelines for your workplace.

  • Run a workplace assessment to identify areas with poor ventilation and a high density of workers. Clean and disinfect these spaces and improve air supply in these areas, if possible.
  • Implement return to work in phases instead of all at once. Start with a partial office reopening, with workers who have minimal personal risk factors (age, medical conditions, pregnancy) and low exposure risk. These kinds of work plans, including staggered shift times and breaks, have been successful globally in minimizing exposure.
  • Place posters throughout the office reminding employees to wear masks and wash their hands.
  • Train all employees about safe reopening practices like wearing masks, social distancing, and quarantine.
  • Use desk booking software to manage workplace capacity and employee schedules. Tools like Officely let you know who used what spaces on which days, allowing for better contact tracing.
  • Conduct Covid-19 symptom surveys using tools like Officely, which sends a daily health survey to employees before they check in to work.
  • Promote vaccination by providing employees with paid time off to recover from any side effects.

#3. Monitor Compliance For Your Return to Work Guidelines

To prevent business closure due to an outbreak of Covid-19 in your workplace, look for ways to reinforce workplace guidelines and rules.

From conversations on our Slack community, Hybrid Heroes, we’ve found managing Covid-19-related work takes up much of existing people ops and human resources teams’ time. To avoid overworking your HR team, consider assigning Covid-related work to specific team members or consultants to monitor compliance and implementation.

If your team has less than 50 employees, assign one or two people to monitor the implementation of Covid-19 related protocols and stocking of supplies like sanitizers and masks. Large, global companies might also use special consultants like Workbench to plan and implement Covid-19 related guidelines and ensure employees have the necessary supplies and support.

Return to Work Policies to Review Before You Reopen

While you may have existing policies related to paid leave or health and fitness, you may need to adjust these to meet Covid-19-related health issues and changing employee preferences.

This is not an exhaustive list of policies to review, but it should be a good starting point as you plan your office reopening.

Work from home/hybrid work policy

If most of your employees support hybrid work, you’ll need a hybrid work policy that outlines office attendance requirements, reimbursements for remote work, and how you’ll ensure equitability in a hybrid environment.

Here are key points to include in a hybrid work policy:

  • Hybrid work model: State how many days a week employees are expected to come into the office.
  • Hybrid work schedule: Mention if employees are allowed to choose their work-from-home days or if they need to follow a manager-led hybrid work schedule.
  • Reimbursements: Clarify if employees will be reimbursed for home office equipment and the amount of reimbursement.
  • Code of conduct: State rules around acceptable employee behavior like language, dress code, and actions during online interactions like meetings and happy hours.
  • Equitability: Explain how you’ll ensure equal opportunities and experiences for remote and in-office employees. For instance, mandate that new work opportunities be posted on public online forums rather than announced in-office.  

Wellness and health

mental health benefits for employees
Mental health apps for remote employees

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Whether you’re adopting a long-term hybrid work policy or temporary staggered office schedules — or anything in between— remote work can be lonely. Your employees may feel isolated or depressed. To combat these side effects of working from home, add employee benefits related to mental health, along with perks like healthcare and dental stipends.

Here are some ideas to safeguard the mental health of your employees:

  • Access to therapy: Provide employees with access to online therapy services like Talkspace or offer a stipend for the same.
  • Mental health days: Encourage employees to take time off to care for their mental health. Ask managers to set an example by taking days off when they need to.
  • Team bonding events: Organize hybrid or virtual team days and deliver lunches to remote employees. Services like Lunchpool make this easy.
  • Extended time off: Allow employees time to recharge by offering long weekends after the team wraps up a challenging project.

Paid sick leave

Paid sick leave policies encourage ill workers to stay at home, which prevents the spread of Covid-19 in the workplace.

WHO recommends sick leave provisions that encourage accommodations for the pandemic.

  • Sickness benefits to ill workers as well as caregivers: The ILO Medical Care and Sickness Benefits Recommendation, 1969 suggests employers should provide sickness benefits to employees who are in quarantine or have to care for a sick family member, cannot report to work, and cannot work remotely.
  • Sick leave for employees who have been exposed: Provide sick leave to employees who recently came in close contact with a Covid-19 patient and need to self-isolate.
  • Paid leave for contract and part-time workers: Extend sick leave benefits to contract and part-time workers, too, as they could spread the virus in your workplace.

Workspace Management Streamlines Return to Work Plans

One of the key recommendations of the pandemic has been to physically and socially distance. It’s also a good way to stop the spread of Covid-19 in your workplace. Physical distancing calls for effective workspace management at all times — during meetings, lunch hours, and work events.

One of the easiest ways to manage your office capacity is to use workspace management software that lets you automatically limit the number of people who come into your office each day and allow employees to book office spaces and desks in advance.

Additionally, workspace management software like Officely is equipped with features like contact tracing and health screening — also important measures to contain Covid-19 in the workplace.

To help you choose, we've identified eight factors to consider when choosing workspace management software for your business.

Max Shepherd-Cross

Max is one of the cofounders and CEO of Officely.

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