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

By
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

Image source

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


Image source

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.

State
Mandate or Prohibition Information
For More State-by-State COVID-19 Information
Alabama

State and local governments in Alabama are prohibited from requiring a person to be vaccinated. Private employers may require a vaccine as a condition for employment, as long as they provide reasonable accommodations for employees who are unable to get the vaccine due to medical or religious reasons. Masks are not required to be worn by employees.

Alaska

State and local governments in Alaska are prohibited from requiring a person to be vaccinated. Private employers may require a vaccine as a condition for employment. Masks are not required to be worn by employees.

Arizona

State and local governments in Arizona are prohibited from requiring a person to be vaccinated. Private employers may require a vaccine as a condition for employment, as long as they provide reasonable accommodations for employees who are unable to get the vaccine due to medical or religious reasons. Masks are not required to be worn by employees.

Arkansas

State and local governments in Arkansas are prohibited from requiring a person to be vaccinated. Private employers may require a vaccine as a condition for employment, as long as they provide reasonable accommodations for employees who are unable to get the vaccine due to medical or religious reasons. Masks are not required to be worn by employees.

California

Vaccine mandates in California currently allow employers to require employees to submit proof of COVID-19 vaccination. Additionally, California employers can dictate whether masks are required by employees or not.

Colorado

Colorado vaccine mandates allow private employers to require their employees to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19 in order to go to work. Colorado has a mask mandate for state-owned institutions, but private employees are not required to wear one.

Connecticut

Private employers in Connecticut can decide whether they will require proof of vaccination as a condition for employment. Vaccinated individuals are exempt from wearing a mask.

Delaware

Private employers in Delaware can decide whether they will require proof of vaccination as a condition for employment. Masks are not required by employers, but unvaccinated individuals are encouraged to wear them.

District of Columbia

Private employers in the District of Columbia can decide whether they want to mandate vaccines among their employees. Masks are required unless you are in a private office where the public cannot enter.

Florida

State and local governments in Florida are prohibited from requiring a person to be vaccinated. Additionally, private businesses cannot require a vaccine as a condition for employment. Masks are not required.

Georgia

State and local governments in Georgia are prohibited from requiring a person to be vaccinated. Additionally, private businesses cannot require a vaccine as a condition for employment. Masks are not required to be worn by employees.

Hawaii

Private employers in Hawaii can make an independent decision about requiring proof of vaccination or weekly testing as a condition for employment. Hawaii encourages all employees to wear masks whenever they are in a common area with other employees.

Idaho

State and local governments in Idaho are prohibited from requiring a person to be vaccinated. Additionally, private businesses cannot require a vaccine as a condition for employment. Masks are not required.

Illinois

Private employers in Illinois can make an independent decision about requiring proof of vaccination or weekly testing as a condition for employment. All employees must wear a mask while indoors.

Indiana

Private employers in Indiana can mandate employee COVID-19 vaccines, with the exception of the state government and some local entities. Employees are not required to wear a mask.

Iowa

A private employer in Iowa may require an employee to undergo testing or prove receipt of COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of employment. However, employees in Iowa have medical exemptions beyond the federal and state requirements. Masks are not required for employees.

Kansas

Private employers in Kansas may require an employee to undergo testing or prove receipt of COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of employment, but exemption requests must be reviewed and considered. Masks are not required.

Kentucky

Private employers in Kentucky can decide whether to require an employee to undergo testing or prove receipt of COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of employment. Masks are not required.

Louisiana

Private employers in Louisiana can mandate COVID-19 vaccines as a condition of employment. Private employers also have the discretion to require masks.

Maine

Private employers in Maine can mandate COVID-19 vaccines as a condition of employment. Masks are not required.

Maryland

Private employers in Maryland may require a COVID-19 vaccination with some conditions; mandates are dependent on internal policies, procedures, and the status of each person's employment. Private employers are able to mandate wearing masks.

Massachusetts

Private employers in Massachusetts can mandate COVID-19 vaccines as a condition of employment. Masks are not required.

Michigan

Private employers in Michigan can require employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19, as long as employers consider accommodations for employees who are medically or religiously exempt from getting the vaccine. Masks are not required.

Minnesota

Private employers in Minnesota can mandate COVID-19 vaccines as a condition of employment. Private employers are able to mandate wearing masks.

Mississippi

Currently, private employers can mandate COVID-19 vaccines for employees at their own discretion. However, a recently filed bill would prohibit this if it gets passed. Masks are not required.

Missouri

Private employers in Missouri can require employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19, as long as employers allow exemptions for employees who are medically or religiously unable to get the vaccine. Masks are not required.

Montana

State and local governments are prohibited from requiring a person to be vaccinated. Additionally, private businesses cannot require a vaccine as a condition for employment. Masks are not required.

Nebraska

Private employers in Nebraska can decide whether to require an employee to undergo testing or prove receipt of COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of employment. Masks are not required.

Nevada

Private employers in Nevada can mandate COVID-19 vaccines as a condition of employment. Mask mandates are currently in place by county.

New Hampshire

State and local governments in New Hampshire are prohibited from mandating vaccines. Private employers can require employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19, as long as the mandate is job-related and employers allow exemptions for employees who are medically or religiously unable to get the vaccine. Masks are not required.

New Jersey

Private employers in New Jersey can mandate COVID-19 vaccines as a condition of employment. Masks are not required.

New Mexico

Private employers in New Mexico can mandate COVID-19 vaccines as a condition of employment. Masks are required in New Mexico for individuals in any public, indoor setting.

New York

Private employers in New York can mandate COVID-19 vaccines as a condition of employment. NYC vaccine mandates specifically state that an employer can require a vaccine for employees who regularly work face-to-face with other employees or those who work with the public. If your office does not require proof of vaccination as a condition of entry, every employee must wear masks at all times.

North Carolina

Private employers in North Carolina can mandate COVID-19 vaccines as a condition of employment. Masks are not required.

North Dakota

Private employers in North Dakota can require employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19, as long as employers allow exemptions for employees who are medically or religiously unable to get the vaccine. Masks are not required.

Ohio

Vaccine mandates in Ohio state that private employers can require employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19, as long as employers allow exemptions for employees who are medically or religiously unable to get the vaccine. Masks are not required.

Oklahoma

Private employers in Oklahoma can make COVID-19 vaccines a condition of employment provided the employer offers reasonable accommodations for employees. Masks are not required.

Oregon

Private employers in Oregon can mandate COVID-19 vaccines as a condition of employment. Masks are required in all indoor settings.

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania vaccine mandates state that a private employer may require employees to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19 in order to go to work. Masks are not required.

Rhode Island

Private employers in Rhode Island can mandate COVID-19 vaccines as a condition of employment. Rhode Island also states that masking is required of all employees who are not vaccinated.

COVID-19 Regulations and Vaccine Mandates in Australia

The Australian Government’s vaccination policy says, in general, receiving a vaccination is free and voluntary, though it aims to have as many Australians vaccinated as possible. Furthermore, each Australian state and territory can implement its own vaccine and mask mandates. Currently, both Victoria and New South Wales require employees to be vaccinated before entering an office.


COVID-19 Regulations and Vaccine Mandates in Germany

In Germany, employees can only reenter the workforce if they show their “3G certification” that says they are vaccinated against COVID-19, have recently tested negative for COVID-19, or have recovered from the virus. Unvaccinated employees must take a test every workday and provide proof of a negative result for each test they take.

Additionally, employers must offer a work-from-home option for all employees, as long as the nature of the employee’s work allows for it. German employers may require employees to wear masks.


COVID-19 Regulations and Vaccine Mandates in Italy

Vaccines are not mandatory in Italy, and employers cannot require a vaccine as a condition for employment. However, they can require employees to wear masks while on the job.


COVID-19 Regulations and Vaccine Mandates in Spain

Employers in Spain cannot require employees to submit to a COVID-19 vaccination. There are currently no indoor mask mandates.


COVID-19 Regulations and Vaccine Mandates in Switzerland

Employers in Switzerland cannot require employees to submit to a COVID-19 vaccination, but it is encouraged. Encouragement includes resources on where to get the vaccine, how to protect yourself against COVID-19, and where you can get tested. Mask mandates in Switzerland state that you must wear a mask while indoors.


COVID-19 Regulations and Vaccine Mandates in Russia

Vaccine mandates are not legal in Russia, but employers can encourage vaccination with information like locations for vaccines and COVID-19 testing. Russia does require masks to be worn in crowded public spaces.


COVID-19 Regulations and Vaccine Mandates in the UK

Currently, only employees of health care facilities are required to show proof of vaccination as a condition for employment in the United Kingdom, which encompasses England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Wales.

There are no prohibitions for private employers, which allows them to each make their own decision about whether to mandate vaccines and masks for employees.


Help Your Employees Stay Informed on the Latest COVID-19 Regulations

With so many different regulations and mandates, the best thing you can do for your employees is to help them stay informed about COVID-19. Use the CDC’s distancing and masking guidelines, encourage people to stay home when they’re sick, and provide them with helpful COVID-19 related resources. Consider offering your employees the option to work from home or on a hybrid schedule if their job allows for it.

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Max Shepherd-Cross
Max is one of the cofounders and CEO of Officely.

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