5 minute read 8 May 2020
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Responding to COVID-19: how to put humans at the center of the physical return to work

By EY Americas

Multidisciplinary professional services organization

5 minute read 8 May 2020
Related topics COVID-19 CARES

EY announces the launch of Physical Return and Work Reimagined framework for organizations post-COVID-19.

Companies are beginning to plan how to safely return employees to the workplace, after the COVID-19 crisis lockdowns. These plans involve a complex matrix of decisions with people at the center. Validating that employees’ health and safety are paramount is vital for trust and loyalty.

We see the physical return to work governed by two gears: Gear 1 drives the transition to the physical return to work; Gear 2 looks to the longer-term reimagining or transformation of work.

  • Gear 1

    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:

    1. Essential workers who have been physically present in the workplace throughout the crisis, at some personal risks to themselves and their families
    2. Employees who have been working remotely but need to return as a priority
    3. Less critical employees to return in a staggered cadence as a second phase (through the summer and fall)
    4. 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:

    1. 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.)
    2. Implement the playbook in a phased approach that recognizes different and changing levels of risk (For many global companies, this will differ by country.)
    3. 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.

  • Gear 2

    To get transformation right, you need to verify that Gear 1’s transition has been successfully implemented. When looking ahead to transformation, futurists typically think in terms of four P’s: the possible, the plausible, the probable and the preferable. It’s this last P that is often overlooked. What do we want work to be in a reimagined future?

    Re-examine the total business, asking what the best environment is, both physical and digital, to suit every role in the company: how do we train adaptability? How do we build resilience, and how do we cross-skill the whole organization? Companies that still have an attendance culture may need to rethink it.

    Recategorize work itself — drudgery is better automated, reserving higher-level work for humans.

    Think like a futurist ­­— reinvent your business and plan for different scenarios; build different imagined worlds across social, technological, economic, environmental and political (also known as STEEP) dimensions.

What trends do we see emerging?

The crisis has changed the way we work, live, shop and share. Some trends we think will be lasting:

  • There is new focus on health and hygiene, as safety is elevated.
  • Agility is key as companies have proven their ability to pivot to meet the urgent needs of the crisis (e.g., manufacturing sanitizer, PPE, ventilators).
  • We have all been equally affected by COVID-19 — emphasizing our common humanity.
  • Technology may accelerate the move away from touch activation to voice activation.

Key takeaways

  • Think about the employee as a whole person holistically with physical, mental and financial well-being
  • De-risk the physical environment and communicate the steps you are taking
  • Constantly update the playbook to include learning from others, and always to show due care


To learn more about actions organizations can take to prepare for the ‘new normal’ in the workplace, read "Work reimagined: a two-geared approach to reopening and transforming your business."

You can also watch our webcast on "How to put humans at the center of the physical return to work."

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About this article

By EY Americas

Multidisciplinary professional services organization

Related topics COVID-19 CARES