Transitioning Back to the Workplace: How to Prepare for the Future Workplace

Covid back to work plan

There is no doubt at all that the year 2020 has seen the biggest change to the workplace and organizational structure than we have seen in decades.  The COVID-19 pandemic forced many employers to shift quickly to a remote-working model and adapt their service delivery models in a way that meets the new needs of their customer base.

But even after this rapid change, many companies are still left with big, looming questions about what the future will look like, including how to transition back to physical locations when the pandemic fears are low enough and what permanent changes may exist for their workforce.

A New Normal for Most Workplaces

While some employers have already publicly committed to permanent changes in their operations, many others simply can’t function in a mostly remote working environment.  They must consider how to bring back their employees safely, but we know it’s still going to have to look vastly different than it did during pre-pandemic times due to lingering health and safety concerns.  Several notable differences will likely include:

  1. Changing density – physical and social distancing will be the new norm for months to come, at least, although probably longer. Employees will have different levels of concerns about how much interaction at what distance will be ok, and the CDC recommends at least six feet of separation between employees, and between employees and customers.  For many companies, this will require a change in their current layout to accommodate both employees and customers.
  2. Alternating work schedules – for some employers, the best way to limit density is to consider only having some employees return at a time. Or by alternating schedules so that different groups of staff are there during certain pre-determined times.
  3. Limiting meetings – most workplaces have shared spaces where people would commonly congregate, such as break rooms and meeting rooms. But to adhere to social distancing guidelines, the use of these rooms will likely be limited.  Meetings will likely only include essential team members, and break rooms may limit the number of individuals allowed in simultaneously.  Some companies may require greater planning for accommodations than others in this area.
  4. Restricted admission – ensuring that population doesn’t get too dense may be particularly challenging for companies that are open to the public, so these employers will have to make arrangements to enforce limits on how many individuals are permitted entry at a time.
  5. Emphasis on cleaning – moving forward, most workplaces must implement a much more rigorous cleaning regiment to ensure that workplaces are sanitized, particularly if an employee becomes ill. This strategy is essential for ensuring that employee confidence is developed regarding the safety of the workplace.

Return-to-Work Criteria for Employees

While physical space and cleaning can be planned ahead of time and evaluated easily, the human component is a lot more unpredictable, so safety mitigations are necessary.  In California, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) has put together a playbook for safe reopening in bringing employees back safely.  Below are the criteria:

  1. Symptomatic positive (employees with symptoms who are lab-confirmed to have COVID-19) – at least one day (24 hours) has passed since the last fever, defined as resolution of fever without the use of fever-reducing medications and improvement in symptoms; and at least 10 days have passed since symptoms first appeared.
  2. Asymptomatic positive (employees never had symptoms and are lab-confirmed to have COVID-19) – a minimum of 10 days has passed since the date of the first positive COVID-19 test. If they develop symptoms, the criteria for lab-confirmed cases with symptoms apply.
  3. Symptomatic negative – use the same criteria for return to work as lab-confirmed cases.
  4. Asymptomatic negative (employees never had symptoms but were tested due to close contact with a lab-confirmed case-patient and were negative) – quarantine at home for 14 days after the last known close contact with the case-patient.
  5. Symptomatic untested (employees with symptoms of COVID-19 but were not tested) – testing is highly recommended. If the employee cannot be tested, use the same criteria for return to work as lab-confirmed cases.  Employers may not require a negative testing result but can request a fitness-for-duty doctor’s note.

Tremendous Increases in Remote Working & Technology

While the physical workplace will undergo a tremendous transformation to accommodate for the needs of the future, the structure of many companies will also likely change permanently.  Many companies have already publicly stated their intentions to create long-term remote working solutions, and it is estimated that between 25%-30% of the entire workforce will be working from home multiple days per week by the end of 2021.  This increase will likely define the future of work for years to come, as companies realize the financial benefits of permitting remote working options.

Not only can businesses save on the cost of leasing or purchasing physical space, but the pandemic has also demonstrated that there are productivity gains when employees are permitted to work from home. Remote employees have been found to work an additional 1.4 more days per month than in-office employees.  They also report fewer distractions than they experience when working at the workplace.

While the future workplace has a heavy emphasis on remote working, that also means that how work is done will be shaped by a greater reliance on technology.  The bottom line is that many of the companies that transitioned quickly to a remote-working structure were only able to do so by implementing or leveraging technological solutions that enabled better remote collaboration and communication. Companies who are struggling to adapt in an economy with rapidly evolving consumer and employee needs may want to explore areas where technology can fill in the gaps and create safer workplaces and better service delivery models.

Before 2020, modern workplaces were evolving – although the changes were slow and gradual. The future of workplaces will likely force most companies to be far more adaptive and flexible than they have been in the past since current needs can change in months or even days.  There is no way to entirely future-proof your company.  Still, employers that learn to balance the needs of the workforce in ways that support continuing business in nearly any conditions will fare far better than those who resist change and fail to plan.

CA HR Services specializes in working with small and medium-sized companies to help develop legal, efficient, and appropriate HR processes and procedures that meet local, state, and federal labor law requirements.

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