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​A Safe Return

Organizations are working to ensure a smooth transition back to the workplace.

Elizabeth Fealy
People Advisory Services Solutions Leader
Global Workforce Advisory Leader, EY

Sam Fogleman
Global Lead Partner Restarting America Team Member, KPMG

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​What are key considerations in deciding when to bring employees back to the workplace?  

Fealy First, employers should consider workforce segmentation to determine which positions can effectively work remotely versus those that require a return to the office or work site. Second, employers should perform workforce sentiment analysis to gain insight into their employees’ comfort levels with a physical return. For instance, our research shows that employees do want to return to the office in some capacity for social connection and collaboration with colleagues. These insights can then help organizations determine if they should offer an option to opt out from returning, and remain working from home. 

Next, employers should create a phased plan for safely returning certain employees. Such plans should consider capacity, small pod areas, rotational working hours, and other adjustments that accommodate social distancing. To return employees to the workplace with confidence demands big-picture planning alongside a forensic focus down to the smallest of details, such as the cleanliness of individual surfaces on each floor of each building. Finally, organizations should be on alert for waves of outbreaks and aftershocks and have a game plan for resurgence that they should be prepared to communicate to employees. 

Fogleman KPMG looks at this from two perspectives: Are your employees ready to come back? And, are you ready to have them return? Determining if employees are ready to come back is a matter of looking at the community threat level (CTL) — how ready to return are the communities your employees live in and you operate in — and what is your employees’ individual threat level. The individual risk estimate (IRE) evaluates each employee’s risk of contracting and transmitting the infection. The CTL and the IRE are then combined to create an individual “passport” that indicates if they are ready to return. 

Determining whether the organization is ready to have employees return is a matter of executing against the social, physical, behavioral, and technological changes in your playbook to make your workplaces safer in a COVID-19 environment. This is not a “one and done.” Companies need a governance framework that allows them to continually monitor what is happening on the ground and to adjust what they are doing based on what is a very fluid situation.

How can companies ensure employees are returning to healthy buildings equipped to handle ongoing COVID-19 risks?  

Fogleman Organizations are doing two things. First, they’ve created comprehensive playbooks that determine what is needed at each location to return safely and to keep their locations safe. Second, they are evaluating who needs to return full-time, who needs to return part-time, and who doesn’t need to return at all. The second is as important as the first in helping create and maintain healthy buildings.

Fealy EY research found that 60% of U.S. employees cite their physical health as a top concern related to the pandemic, so health and safety should be a top priority. Organizations should consider how technology can play a role in handling ongoing COVID-19 health risks. For instance, a leading practice is to implement a holistic approach to screen, identify, trace, and respond. Requiring employee screening or testing to enter the workplace is a best practice. Additionally, rapidly identifying employees who are sick, using technology and tracers to determine the impact of infected individuals, and responding to mitigate impact by deploying appropriate interventions are key.

How should companies address the anxiety many employees feel about returning to work?  

Fealy Employees need to feel confident that their safety is protected to create a trusted transition and reduce anxiety around a physical return to work. When asked about their most pressing concerns in the wake of COVID-19, employees named not only their physical health, but also their job, finances, and loved ones. Companies, therefore, must take deliberate steps to build trust by communicating and demonstrating protective measures. They will have to make a concerted effort to gather data. Sentiment surveys and assessment tools can offer insight into employee attitudes about current organizational practices. Such insight could help organizations determine where they should encourage a physical return to work or to continue to work from home and what policies and practices need to be updated to support these approaches. 

Fogleman The best organizations have well-thought-out and thorough plans, supported by a specific COVID-19 governance framework, and continually monitor risks and communicate with their employees in a frank way as to the status “on the ground.” The reality is things are going to go wrong — community numbers are going to spike and individual outbreaks will occur at plant and office locations. Companies that have a strong governance approach and are honest and courageous about their conversations — sharing the good and the difficult — will find that they create and maintain the trust needed to reduce stress and anxiety for their employees.

How can companies recreate workspaces while maintaining a positive work environment? 

Fogleman We’re finding that employees are experiencing cognitive overload, but still crave flexibility in their day-to-day work; that working alone is easier than working together, but that connected doesn’t always equal connection. To deal with this conundrum, companies need to “focus on the work, not where you work.” Creating a positive work environment that blends remote and on-premises work in a way that maintains the productivity gains we are seeing, maintains a unified workforce, and encourages the collaboration that is essential to innovation will be key both during and post-pandemic. 

Fealy According to EY’s Physical Return and Work Reimagined framework, succeeding in this uncertain period requires using two gears. Gear 1 focuses on transitioning employees back to physical operations; Gear 2 explores how organizations can transform for the future. Humans sit at the center of this framework, as do company purpose and culture. In some instances, planning for return to physical workspaces can represent an opportunity to reimagine a company’s purpose and values. Many organizations are already thinking about these opportunities: Our research shows that 74% of employers plan to make moderate to extensive changes to their workplace real estate strategy, and 78% of employers plan to make moderate to extensive changes to their remote work strategy. By conducting sentiment studies and considering the concerns of employees, organizations can produce a positive work environment, regardless of whether it is remote or in-office.

What is the current state of regulation around organizations’ liability for employee safety?

Fealy Laws differ by state and are continuously evolving. Therefore, diligently monitoring local rules and regulations is critical. Still, government regulations do not absolve companies of their responsibilities. EY’s research reveals that 86% of employers plan to make moderate to extensive changes to their workplace safety strategies moving forward. Organizations recognize they have a duty to create and maintain a safe physical workplace for employees and customers, and to continuously adjust to new guidelines. An effective physical return plan must balance the external operating environment — such as regional public health developments — alongside internal capabilities that put human wellness at the center.

Fogleman Organizational liability is still being debated. The broader question is: How is the organization addressing the interrelated and changing array of regulatory requirements associated with COVID-19 — for example, from global, national, state, and community requirements to privacy, equal access, and health information requirements? For internal audit, key questions are: What is our exposure and how are we managing it? And, how are we gathering the various legal expertise needed to come to an organizational decision on how to best manage liability risk related to reopening?  

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