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Back to work in 2021? Considerations for returning to the workplace safely

With news of several COVID-19 vaccines approvals, there is a strong potential that the world could return to some degree of normalcy in 2021. However, even though two vaccines are approved and distribution has started, new health protocols and social distancing guidelines are likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future to support public health efforts. This uncertainty has made the back-to-work discussion challenging for employers. “Many companies across industries are finding themselves in a state of limbo while trying to plan when and how to return their employees to the office,” says Elisa Gilmartin, chief people officer of Fuze, a cloud-based communications provider.

Businessman wearing mask in the office during COVID-19 pandemic

While it may still be too early to know when your office will reopen, with  vaccine distribution on the horizon, it’s time to start thinking about what measures are most important to you. Much has been written about protocols for returning to work, particularly the health considerations (see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines), but there are a host of factors to think about beyond physical health. Below, we’ve compiled what’s been discussed along with some new measures for consideration.


Reimagining face-to-face collaboration and work

Although more than half of employees are ready to return to the workplace, either on a full-time or hybrid basis, it likely won’t be possible—and could potentially be hazardous—to bring everyone back at once. Depending on office size and current guidelines, only a certain number of employees may be allowed into a space at once, meaning a hybrid approach may be necessary. For many businesses, it might make sense to stagger employees based on team structure and their specific roles to ensure coverage both in-person and remote.

Businesswoman wearing protective face mask explaining colleagues in presentation

Some organizations are piloting different approaches before adopting them across the company. Fuze created a Future @ Work task force to lead the charge on establishing reopening plans. This cross-functional group of employees is assessing strategies for returning to each of its global offices on a case-by-case basis, to support a hybrid model and encourage collaboration among employees.

Ergotron, which manufactures products for the office, education, and health care sectors, has created spaces within its current office to test approaches and make sure going back to work is safe for its employees, as well as its customers. This included taking down cubicle walls and bringing in mobile desks to allow for varying levels of collaboration.

Person talking with another person at counter with a glass partition in between

“We’ve created an office test lab which is particularly valuable for certain teams—like product development as they’re working on prototypes, for instance. Naturally we have numerous health and sanitation protocols in place and we’ve asked anyone who feels unsafe or has immunocompromised loved ones to stay at home. But the test lab enables our employees to experiment with the space and tools we have (including our mobile desks) to create safe collaboration experiences,” says Chad Severson, CEO of Ergotron. “To engage with our health care customers—who we were accustomed to meeting face-to-face to demonstrate products and new features—we created a clinical showroom at our headquarters. We’ve outfitted it with a variety of our health care products and it has video conferencing capabilities, which allows our sales team to safely connect with health care partners while adhering to social distancing measures.”


Integrating new health and wellness solutions

Whether your office is reopening soon or further into 2021, new guidelines and amenities should be in place that encourage proper health and safety protocol. These may include:

• Daily health checks. Employers should consider launching regular health screenings—such as daily temperature checks and symptom questionnaires—as employees return to work. Employees can self-screen either prior to arriving at work or employers can have a designated space at the office to screen employees as they arrive.

Two women using infrared thermometer for measuring temperature before entrance in office

Employers should also have a proper plan in place for when an employee tests positive for COVID-19. The CDC offers several guidelines to follow, including informing any employees who may have been exposed and encouraging them to self-isolate. You may consider implementing similar policies as collegiate football teams, which require any players or staff who have received a positive COVID-19 test to quarantine for at least ten days. Keep in mind though: quarantine time depends on a number of factors, and we recommend following the CDC guidelines to best determine how long each employee should quarantine for.

• New hygiene procedures. Employees should have access to personal protective equipment and be reminded about the importance of frequent handwashing. High-touch surfaces should be cleaned frequently, with routine deep cleanings to ensure the space is completely sanitized.

Wearing a mask and taking preventive measures can likely slow the spread of COVID-19. Education around mask-wearing and having guidelines in the office is critical, particularly as face coverings are not mandated in every state.

• Reconfigured floor plans to ensure proper social distancing. Employees should maintain at least six feet between themselves and their coworkers. Even if there is a smaller number of employees in the office, make sure workstations and meetings are socially distant, and reduce elevator capacity to avoid crowding. During warmer months, utilizing outdoor space can enable employees to interact safely.

Unrecognizable man with protective gloves putting adhesive tape on six feet distance, in front of information sign about social distancing in front of bank counter

Since many workplaces have transitioned to open-office concepts, some offices might need to reconfigure their spaces to accommodate for social distancing. Certain offices have installed plexiglass barriers in between workstations and have revamped their air filtration systems.

• Consider adjusting highly touched and trafficked areas. Evaluating your space for opportunities to limit risk is a small way to ensure employee confidence and maintain a clean workspace. For instance, at Ergotron, the company made simple changes, including adding foot pulls to bathroom doors and replacing drinking water fountains with hands-free water bottle filling stations.

Taking into account employees’ varying needs

Being at work during a global pandemic is a difficult situation to navigate, especially as employees have varying needs and are willing to take on different levels of risk. For example, some employees may fall into the high-risk category for COVID-19 and will want to continue working from home. Parents working from home might also need greater flexibility if they are faced with at-home childcare or their children are doing remote learning. Now is the time to be flexible and understanding, and allow for employees to work at home until they feel comfortable returning to work.

Parents using computer while sitting with boy

“While the exact timeline for when the pandemic will subside and employees can return to the office in full force remains uncertain, one thing is for certain: companies will need to provide their employees with greater flexibility from here on out,” says Gilmartin. “The pandemic has proven that work can indeed be done from anywhere and that employees can remain engaged while working remotely.”

Before returning to work, review your health benefits and understand how to use them if you need care at any point. Be sure to check with your insurance provider ahead of time; Harvard Pilgrim Health Care members can view their care options here.


Creating community in a socially distant, hybrid environment

Building a strong company culture is important to employees and is critical for business success. However, with less in-person interaction due to remote work, many employees feel less connected toward both their company culture and colleagues since most have been working at home for a prolonged period of time.

Black woman sitting at the desk in an office and eating lunch, using laptop at the same time.

In order to build and maintain company culture, employers have been trying to incorporate fun and engaging activities for employees to feel closer together—whether they are in the office or working remotely. Hosting a virtual team lunch or inviting a guest speaker for a company-wide Zoom session are just a few team-building activities that can help boost company culture.

Your insurance partner is also a great resource for guiding employers with return-to-work planning. Harvard Pilgrim provides employers with helpful resources, such as reopening recommendations and worksite safety tips, that can assist during the planning process.

Although many employees are eager to return to their office for some sense of normalcy, ensuring that it is done so safely is essential to controlling the virus and ensuring the health and well-being of your organization and community. Taking these considerations into account will help ensure that you are confident that going back to the workplace is the right decision for you and your family.

This content was written by the advertiser and edited by Studio/B to uphold The Boston Globe's content standards. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its writing, production, or display.