Managing a Phased Return to Work: Who Should Come Back, When?

Posted in Best Practice

The return to work should be a trickle, not a tidal wave. Here’s a decision-making framework to help guide your phased return to work plan. (Hint: don’t rely on rank!)   

Across towns and cities the world-over, office lights are starting to blink back on. And with that, we’re entering one of the most challenging phases of the pandemic: returning to work.

Getting people back to work is critical to “flatten the curve of unemployment”, as Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison puts it. But there’s little certainty over exactly what ‘COVID-safe’ looks like.

The entire workforce obviously can’t flock straight back to the office. With social distancing regulations, there’s simply not enough space for the status quo to continue.

So, you’re working out what a phased return to work should look like. But that’s more complex than it sounds.

  • Should some people stay home indefinitely? But what does that mean for long-term productivity? And workplace connection?
  • Should we stagger shift schedules? But what does that mean for collaboration? And will employees be game?
  • Should teams take turns hot-desking? But what does that mean for cleaning? And how do we know who should be in-office, when?

There’s no simple, one-size-fits-all solution.

As Personnel Today say, “the biggest mistake that businesses will make is bringing back staff in order of seniority. […] Safety and security needs to come above rank”.

The fact is, deciding who to bring back to the office, in what order, and when, is a hard question.

And we don’t have a simple answer for you. What we do have are some sensible questions you can ask, to guide your decision-making and build a phased return to work plan that makes sense for your business.


Four questions to guide your phased return-to-work plan

1 – Who wants to come back?

Different employees need different things, as our Return to Work Playbook points out. Where Katie lives alone and is desperate for some in-office interaction, for example, Mike is a single father juggling home-schooling with work.

Read more: Survivors or Thrivers? How to personalize reboarding

Summon Mike back and you put him in an unnecessarily awkward position, and prove you haven’t understood his unique situation (probably because you haven’t listened…)

And tell Katie you’re abandoning her to another few weeks at home, and you’re threatening her mental health. Not good for long-term sickness rates, engagement or productivity.

What your people want isn’t your only consideration, of course.

But having a robust decision-making framework means you can mitigate difficult situations like this – giving your Katies and Mikes clarity over your process and offering tailored support. Like subsidised childcare or increased virtual team gatherings, for example.

2 – Who’s most vulnerable?

Look at vulnerabilities at individual and company level, to help decide which employees, teams and offices are lowest risk to bring back.

(Plus, the better you understand employees’ unique situations, the more personalized support you can offer. Win, win.)

Like.. maybe Jack’s elderly mum has moved in with him through all this, so the stakes are higher if he’s exposed to the virus. And Mikaela’s immunosuppressed so although she wants to return to the office, there’s a duty of care consideration there.

Or… perhaps there’s a COVID-19 spike in the U.S. but all’s calm in Australia, so prioritizing the Australian office makes most sense.

That’s where having an effective business track-and-trace system matters, so you can spot flare-ups and close them down before they can spread.


3 – Who works with who? 

In his recent session at re:engage 2020, President and Co-Founder of Humanyze Dr. Ben Waber talked about the different workplace models – fully office-based, fully remote, or hybrid – businesses could adopt from now.

To inform those decisions, he recommended HR look at ‘core collaboration percentage’ – the percentage of time people spend with their core collaborators versus wider collaborators.

Humanyze’s research has shown that through COVID-19, collaboration with close collaborators has increased around 60% BUT collaboration with wider collaboration networks has decreased by at least 10%. Often much more.

That’s a major problem because most information workers globally spend around 45% of their time with four to five core collaborators, Waber says. That’s 55% of collaboration that’s dependent on wider networks – which are threatened when working from home.

Although employees typically feel they’ve been just as productive working from home (download our COVID-19 EX research report, if you haven’t yet), the switch to remote is likely to have long-term implications for productivity. Especially amongst these wide-collaboration teams.

On the other hand, you probably also have more insular teams who spend much more of their time working with core collaborators. Those people’s productivity is least hampered by working remotely, so are a lesser priority for returning to the office.

4 – Who’s coping well from home?

Even if you have an insular, close-collaborating team, they might be struggling with remote collaboration for other reasons. Maybe Andy’s partially deaf, so he’s really struggling with Zooms. Or Zack has three young children so he’s struggling to get online regularly.

Equally, some teams might depend on a wider collaboration network but everyone in that network is thriving remotely.

Use the insights you’re gathering from regular manager one-to-ones and pulse surveys to understand which teams might be struggling, and need prioritizing for an office return.

Read more: 3 Mission-critical questions to ask employees right now 

Overarching principles are a great starting point but examine your own data, to see what the lived reality for your business is.

Agility is everything 

Deciding who to bring back to the office, when, is a knotty problem. If you bring people back when they don’t feel safe you risk their trust – and lost trust quickly undermines productivity and damages your employer brand.

But then some employees are likely desperate for some normality, perhaps feeling isolated and burnt-out working from home. Not bringing them back could be a serious mistake too.

Then there’s the productivity perspective. Productivity losses now could have long-term consequences like slowing product cycle times, decreased innovation, unhappy customers, fewer sales and declining brand reputation.

Juggling all those factors means the right course of action will be different for every business. The bottom line is, as is so often true in a crisis, agility is everything. Ask these questions often,then listen, learn and improve:

“To thrive during moments of transition, we have to embrace an agile approach. Change is happening fast which means overthinking and rigid structuring can quickly fall apart or become completely redundant” – Return to Work Playbook

Download our Return to Work Playbook now for five guiding principles to nail people-first reboarding. 

Become an Enboarder insider!