COVID-19 Return-to-Work Plan

A step-by-step guide to creating a COVID-19 return-to-work plan that prioritizes employee and health and safety

A Comprehensive Return to the Workplace Guide for HR Professionals and Business Owners


Updated: May 14, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the U.S. economy. With the entire country on lockdown to minimize virus transmission, thousands of companies had to switch to a remote workforce or shut down temporarily, and at least 30 million people have filed for unemployment benefits as of April 30, 2020.   

After almost two months of lockdown, state and local governments are gradually allowing businesses to reopen. And companies are looking for the best way to transition their employees back to work, whether they were teleworking, furloughed, or temporarily laid off.

But before companies rush to establish a “new normal” in the office, they need to evaluate their options, comply with some government guidelines, and get a general sense of employees’ feelings on the matter. 

Here’s a comprehensive guide to creating a COVID-19 return to work plan, and to ensuring your company is doing its part to keep employees safe and healthy through the transition.  

COVID-19 Return-to-Work Plan

Considerations for Reopening Your Office

  1. Monitor federal, state, and local orders closely. On April 16, the White House and the CDC released the official guidelines for Opening Up America Again, and all states and local officials must satisfy these criteria before they can reopen. Make sure you are staying on top of the law and are complying with your responsibilities as an employer. 

  2. Determine whether it’s essential for the employees to return to the workplace. 
    • If your employees can telework, consider following government guidelines, and allow them to continue working from home for as long as possible. 
    • If your employees can’t telework, make a list of business tasks and categorize them based on importance for business continuity. Consider bringing the employees back in phases to ensure their safety.
  3. Discuss company budgets for workplace staffing and safety. If you’re bringing back employees that were furloughed or temporarily laid off, rehire them based on the essential business tasks list you created previously. Additionally, make sure you are making rehiring decisions based on inclusive hiring practices.

  4. Measure employees’ willingness to return to the office
    • If your employees have been working from home during this time, ask for their feedback about returning to the office. It’s an anxious time for many individuals, and returning to the office prematurely could be counterproductive if it jeopardizes employee mental health and morale. Knowing their thoughts will help you identify any potential pushback before building the plan, and make employees feel supported.  
    • If you’re hiring or rehiring, you must also measure their willingness to work on-site, and address any pushbacks related to job safety (e.g., will they be temporarily or permanently employed), workplace safety, etc.
  5. Consider employees at higher-risk of COVID-19 infection. If any of your employees are high-risk, you need to consider them when building your return to work plan. Here are the cases identified by the CDC.
    Ensure you remain compliant with all federal and state regulations. Review updated DOL, EEOC, and state/local guidance regarding employee accommodation obligations specific to COVID-19 pandemic.

Developing the Office Return-to-Work Plan

Create a plan based on the preparation phase. Consider government laws, budget, and employee feedback, and draft a document to communicate it to employees. Here’s what you should include:

    1. A clear timeline on how, and when employees will go back to the workplace. Consider the following options: 
      • Phase-structured timeline based on essential business tasks
      • Intermittent on-site work — Alternating attendance based on departments.
      • Reduced on-site hours
    2. A plan for high-risk employees. Consider allowing them to telework, if possible, until they feel comfortable going back.

    3. A description of all workplace-safety measures and resources to assure employees’ health. Make sure you review the CDC guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting public spaces, and share your efforts, such as:
      • Social distancing, e.g., scheduled meal/break times, virtual meetings for large groups, rearrangement of desks, constant disinfection of high-traffic areas.
      • Protective equipment, e.g., if masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer are mandatory, the company must provide them.
      • Conducting daily health checks
      • Mandatory safety training
      • Conducting hazard assessment of the workplace
      • Work-travel policies
      • Health and mental health benefits offered by the company
      • Improving building ventilation
  1. A reminder of all employees’ individual responsibilities to assure safety. Such as:
    • Washing hands regularly
    • Avoiding close contact with colleagues
    • Staying home when sick
    • Covering their mouth if coughing or sneezing 

  2. A clear protocol in case of on-site COVID-19 cases
    • For the individual employee:
      • Staying home if presenting symptoms
      • Notifying HR or immediate manager 
      • Seeking medical attention and testing 
      • Following the company’s protocol on quarantine conditions
    • For the company:
      • Stating sick leave policies for symptomatic employees
      • Stating the duration of quarantine if tested positive
      • Communicating employees of possible exposure
      • Maintaining employee confidentiality.

  3. Any updates you might have regarding telework options. If you switched from an in-office to a remote workforce due to COVID-19, but teleworking wasn’t part of your regular-work policies, you might consider reevaluating your policies based on employee feedback. Add any new considerations in this section. Especially if employees are concerned with school closings and childcare for the remaining of 2020.

  4. Any disclaimers or reasonings behind the plan. Include all the non-discriminatory business reasons behind the timeline and protocols described above. 

  5. A point of contact or communication channels for follow up questions, concerns, or feedback on the office reopening plan, workplace safety, etc.

  6. Any links to government and health resources useful to the employees. Such as,

Ensure you remain compliant with government laws, and keep them in mind when drafting your office reopening plan. Here’s a list of COVID-19 government resources that can be useful in this process.

We recommend that you communicate this plan through your HRIS. This is the best way to make sure employees see it and acknowledge it. You can also deliver the office reopening plan through email or your internal communication system, such as Slack if employees’ signature or acknowledgment isn’t required. 

If you’re looking for a way to simplify HR processes, and drop the paperwork, Take a Tour of GoCo to see our platform in action.

The GoCo team is working hard to support HR pros through COVID-19. Visit our COVID-19 Resource Center for more tools and tips 💚

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