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Consulting Services • Published 6/05/2020 The Next COVID-19 Disruption: Return-to-Work


The impact and economic disruption caused by COVID-19 since March 2020 led to significant changes in how employers manage their operations and workforce. Business owners (from small start-ups to those with employees that number into the tens of thousands) have been forced to make difficult decisions with potentially long-lasting effects due to stay-at-home orders, non-essential business closure, reduced work hours, furloughs, lost business and income, and employees scattered from house to house working remotely.

Just as many employers (and employees) have settled into adjusted work styles and habits, the latest disruption is here: employees are needed back at work.

This seems simple at first glance, but bringing employees back into the workplace can be overwhelming. COVID-19 has resulted in new and complex federal laws protecting employees, fluid state mandates and guidelines affecting how businesses re-open, and financial considerations that prove challenging to even the savviest business owner.

Before opening the doors and having an office full of confused workers clock in, employers should take some time to understand the big picture: things have changed.

Employers should take some time to understand the big picture: things have changed.

Business as Un-usual?

As states begin to loosen stay-at-home orders, it is evident that activity is picking up. However, the rush to return seems a bit more restrained than expected. Many patrons are still leery about being in close contact, and businesses are still operating with reduced staff. Employees who lost their jobs are beginning to look for work while many of those fortunate enough to have kept their jobs are still working from home. It’s different.

As a result of COVID-19, employers are being faced with startling new challenges and employee concerns:

  • Employees are scared of getting sick at work;
  • Many like the idea of working from home permanently; and
  • Others are making as much or more money on unemployment than they earned in wages.

Clearly, it’s not business as usual, and may not be for quite some time. Employers need to understand what’s behind these concerns and develop a plan to get employees fully working again. It might just mean that business looks a little unusual.

Return-to-Work Strategy

So, how do employers manage employee concerns responsibly AND bring back their staff so business can re-start?

Begin by understanding employee concerns and acting responsibly. According to global consulting research, Mercer’s COVID-19 survey reflects that 45% of essential employers have had issues with employees not coming to work out of fear of getting sick. The percentage is higher in certain industries where the risk of exposure is greatest.  

Take a sincere interest in understanding their fears: Have other employees in the company tested positive for COVID-19 at any point? Does your business pose a higher risk to employees because of what you do?

A comprehensive Return-to-Work (RTW) plan should include the following as part of a responsive strategy:

Develop guidelines for returning employees to the workplace.

  • Understanding the cause of the concerns and communicating your sincere desire to maintain the health and safety of your employees to the best of your ability is a huge first step in addressing fear.
  • Assess the office work environment. Are desks and workstations close together? Do employees share phones, equipment, and resources? Is there a need to install dividers between employees and customers? Should you provide hand sanitizer and masks?
  • Outline usage rules for conference rooms, kitchens, work spaces, bathrooms, and any other shared spaces.
  • Evaluate options, costs, and benefits of taking reasonable precautions to comply with guidelines and demonstrate sincere willingness to effectively manage employee fear related to health and safety.

Communicate clearly and often.

  • Remember that while emails can convey accurate information, they generally lack emotion and empathy.
  • Schedule regular group meetings, virtually or live as appropriate, to communicate need-to-know information.
  • Schedule individual calls or video chats to develop and maintain that critical personal bond.
  • Have a clear agenda that includes employee Q&A to make sure their voices are heard.

Consider a new approach where it makes sense.

  • Can some employees continue to work remotely? What are the guidelines and resources needed to make sure that employees can perform their jobs and that goals are communicated and met?
  • Are flex schedules, staggered shifts, or alternating office days an option?
  • Can customer service be maintained effectively if calls are made and work is performed outside of the office environment?
  • Have you made decisions about which employees are allowed flexibility based on non-discriminatory factors? Double check this answer.

Establish clear protocols, policies, procedures, and expectations to minimize disruption and manage performance.

  • Confidentially conduct health screenings, such as taking temperatures.
  • Develop usage requirements for PPE equipment to be provided.
  • Specify guidelines based on job duties and performance expectations.
  • Maintain accurate records relating to payroll and employee count in the event it is needed for financial relief (CARES Act, PPP, etc.).

There is no one-size-fits-all playbook to provide the best answer, but employers should consider the above items in addition to industry-specific matters and recommendations from qualified governmental and other resources as part of an overall RTW strategy.


Using varied tools and techniques, RTW training can be disseminated to your workforce prior to their return date or even after they have returned to refresh and reinforce. Consider one or a combination of methods such as:

  • Web-based video content with online access, custom employee testing, tracking and reporting capabilities, and availability for on-demand use and re-use at your discretion.
  • Presentation-style training with testing, tracking, and reporting performed manually.
  • Individual sessions with supervisors and direct reports to provide clarity and guidance, escalating to higher management as appropriate.

Regardless of the method you decide to use, be sure to prioritize communication and sincere interest in getting employees back to work with as much stability as possible to responsibly address fears and concerns, and adequately respond to employee needs.

45% of essential employers have had issues with employees not coming to work out of fear of getting sick.

Managing Risk

Know your options when dealing with employees who refuse to return to work.

  • Document your offer for employees to return with clear information on hours and schedules.
  • If an employee refuses to return and they do not provide a reason that meets the conditions for not returning under FFCRA or other federal or state laws, you may be able to replace them.
  • File the appropriate paperwork with the Louisiana Workforce Commission, or the appropriate agency for your state, to document your offer and their refusal. This will impact unemployment decisions.

Document training, and track and report on employee participation.

  • Maintain records relating to changes to policy, accommodation for impacted employees, and changes to the office environment.
  • Provide comprehensive training to all employees and document their participation.
  • Track changes to policies and document compliance with RTW requirements.

P&N Can Help

We understand that this Return-to-Work phase will look different for your organization from your pre-COVID-19 operation. P&N can help you prepare for the employee re-entry process and navigate related workforce challenges. Our team will meet with you to understand the unique issues your organization faces in returning employees back into the workplace, including specific issues as appropriate to your organization and industry. Contact us to schedule a discussion.

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