Companies have experienced the crisis in different ways depending on sector and geography, and there will be variables too in how companies manage the physical return. However, there are some common themes that are relevant for all companies. The first is that not everyone can return at once. Companies need to segment the workforce into four groups:
- Essential workers who have been physically present in the workplace throughout the crisis, at some personal risks to themselves and their families
- Employees who have been working remotely but need to return as a priority
- Less critical employees to return in a staggered cadence as a second phase (through the summer and fall)
- Employees who may, both due to personal preference and for the business, work from home on a more extended basis (While permitting employee preference creates complexity, it also builds employee engagement.)
Having decided who needs to return when, companies need to validate the health and safety of staff when they are on company premises:
- Develop a playbook of policies and procedures, aligned with official guidance from the World Health Organization and similar groups, that are fully implemented and revisited regularly (This will cover how employees and visitors will be screened or tested on entry; social distancing; physical controls; and additional protection in terms of ventilation or personal protective equipment (PPE). It will also need to cover what-if scenario planning in the event of a resurgence.)
- Implement the playbook in a phased approach that recognizes different and changing levels of risk (For many global companies, this will differ by country.)
- Utilize a strong communication and training program that addresses employee anxiety and builds trust
Companies will need to decide on technologies that can monitor the health of staff and store and protect the resulting data. There are Internet of Things-enabled wearables that can be used to contact trace. All of this data will need to be uploaded to an information surveillance data platform whose operation will need to comply with local privacy regulations.
Culturally, employees are much more willing to comply and share this personal data because there is increasing acceptance that it is necessary to keep them safe.
With so much change, it’s vital to have the right structure in place from the start. A cross-functional command center that has oversight of all the issues, facilitates agile decision-making and can execute and communicate actions clearly is strongly recommended.
With the focus on physical health, companies shouldn’t lose sight of mental health issues. It may take us years to fully understand the impact of this crisis on mental health, but furloughed workers may be anxious about their long-term employment, and some may have struggled with home working or other issues. It is important to have a strong listening strategy; don’t assume you know how your employees feel. You may want to recognize employees who have been working on the front line, for example.
In all of the Gear 1 actions, you need strong leadership. It’s important to lead from the front and to speak with an authentic voice. Leadership at this time will have long-lasting effects, not just on employees but also on customers. To avoid burdening managers with fielding waves of questions, consider launching a COVID-19-related chat bot that deals with frequently asked questions. Vulnerable employees will need to continue working from home. Above all, companies should model empathetic leadership.
There is likely no immediate end date when we can say this will all be over. There first needs to be an effective vaccine, an effective treatment or herd immunity, and each of these is at least a year away (and possibly several years away). As a result, the second wave of physical return may not be triggered for a significant period.