The Return To Work: What Boards Should Be Thinking About

In order to perform their essential oversight duties, directors need to understand the problems their executives are focused on solving as they chart a course from crisis to recovery.

Management teams bear the primary responsibility for navigating their companies through this disruption. It will be up to them to determine how and when to start the complex task of returning to the workplace once government restrictions are lifted. But boards of directors also have a role. In order to perform their essential oversight duties, corporate boards need to understand the problems their executives are focused on solving as they chart a course to take their workforces from crisis to recovery. That will allow directors to serve as an invaluable sounding board for management—and also enable them to ask the right questions about the company’s plans.

How can we put safety first? 

The health and safety of the workforce should be management’s top priority as it considers how to bring operations back to some semblance of normal. This is, of course, a moral, ethical and legal concern for all companies. And from a business perspective, safeguarding employees’ well-being is paramount because no plan to resume normal operations can succeed without them.

Employees are counting on their companies to help them get back to work safely. Management teams will need to understand and ensure compliance with federal, state and local orders as restrictions are eased. Since these rules vary by locale and probably won’t be relaxed in unison, executives should plan for a range of scenarios based on where mission-critical work takes place.

Once it’s possible to reopen offices, factories and distribution centers, management teams will face the challenge of keeping them safe. New protocols for deep cleaning and sanitization may be needed. It could also mean changes to the layout of the workspace, such as moving workstations farther apart or changing employee schedules to reduce the number of people in buildings at one time.

Companies may also wish to consider establishing guidelines for the use of personal protective equipment, such as face masks and gloves, checking employees and visitors for fever before entering the workplace, and establishing rules governing when employees can return to work after recovering from infection. Given the ubiquity of mobile devices, it may be possible to leverage technology (e.g., apps) to facilitate contact tracing and communicate with employees who’ve been exposed to the virus and need to self-quarantine. Whenever steps like these are being considered, however, it’s important to make sure protocols are in place to safeguard workers’ personal data.

Who do we bring back onsite, and when? 

Returning to the workplace could mean recalling furloughed employees, transitioning away from mandatory remote work or ramping back up toward full productivity regardless of where work is being performed. For many companies, it likely means a combination of all three. But as management teams develop strategies to get their businesses back on track, most will probably focus on getting employees who really need to be in the office or on the factory floor back into the building as soon as it is safe and practicable to do so.

Management teams face a challenge in determining exactly who those mission-critical employees are. Some roles, such as sales or relationship management, that have historically been viewed as requiring face-to-face interaction, may need to evolve given changing health guidelines and customer preferences, as well as the advisability of travel for non-essential purposes. Other roles undeniably depend on onsite tools or technology and can’t be done effectively without them.

An analysis of which roles transitioned smoothly to remote working and which didn’t can help inform decisions about when subsets of employees should be asked to return to the workplace. It may make sense to allow people in jobs with little drop-off in productivity to continue to work remotely for a period of time to reduce onsite headcount and lessen the risk to employee health.

What do employees need to manage this change?

Without employee buy-in, even the best-crafted plans are likely to run into trouble. Management teams should lead with empathy and demonstrate an understanding that while all of their employees have experienced this crisis, they haven’t all experienced it the same way. Some employees may have conditions that increase their risk of serious COVID-19 infection and may be reluctant to return to the office. Others may be eager to leave remote work behind, but have caregiving responsibilities that make it difficult or impossible for them to do so. Sensitivity to this reality is a must.

Likewise, it’s essential to recognize that workforces will need time to adapt to new ways of working post-pandemic. Employees coming back after an extended furlough or period of remote work may find the physical layout of their workplace changed and their shift schedule altered. For office workers, returning to a workplace may require a mindset shift for those who’ve adjusted to working remotely. In order to navigate these changes, management should make sure employees understand what’s being asked of them and what steps the company is taking to protect their health.

Re-acclimating an onsite workforce will present an enormous change management challenge for executives, who will need a communication strategy that can help employees who are returning to the workplace, as well as those who continue to work remotely, embrace a shared vision of what comes next. And they should work with human resources teams to prepare for a potential uptick in ethics and compliance complaints from employees whose concerns persist.

Providing employees with the chance to make their challenges and concerns known may help management teams identify potential problems with their return-to-the-workplace plans. By enabling real, two-way communication, leaders may turn the COVID-19 crisis into an opportunity to strengthen corporate culture, increase employee engagement and boost productivity and loyalty over the long run.

The board’s role

By the time a company is ready to begin planning for a return to the workplace, its crisis-management team—led by top executives and supported by key staff—will likely have been meeting and discussing these issues for some time. Boards should make sure they’re getting the information they need to understand the progress and execution of management’s return-to-work strategy. How and when companies bring employees back could have long-lasting implications for the business and corporate culture. By understanding the risks, boards can play an effective role in overseeing management’s plans to return to the workplace.