How to Tell When It’s Time to Return to the Office

During a pandemic, getting your organization back to “normal” is a daunting task. With the reopening of thousands of businesses and social activities, there has been a nationwide spike in COVID-19 cases over the past few weeks. However, from glass windows at cash registers to mask mandates in stores, there are now solutions in place to make social distancing in public more feasible than it was in the past.

Every organization is unique and therefore optimal times to return to the office will differ. Here are five tips for figuring out when is the best time for your team to return to work:

1. Evaluate Your Work From Home Success

If your company, like countless others, has transitioned to remote work due to the pandemic, you should assess how well your organization has tolerated this shift. Are your employees struggling to focus, is your technology failing, and are miscommunications frequent? Or has the transition to working from home been smoother? Are employees more satisfied with their newfound schedule flexibility, extra time with their families, and lack of commute?

Many companies find that their employees are even more efficient when working from home. A two-year study by Stanford researchers found that employee attrition decreased by 50 percent among telecommuters, who also took shorter breaks and less days off. When deciding whether to go back to the office, assessing your work from home productivity is key. If your productivity has remained stable these past few months, consider waiting to reopen your office until next year (or, like Twitter and Square, indefinitely).

2. Send Out Surveys

Your employees are the backbone of your organization, so be sure to get their input when making return-to-work plans. Send out surveys asking when they feel comfortable coming back, what you can do to support them, and if they have any recommendations or suggestions for how and when to reopen. Ask what they are most concerned about in order to assuage these fears. 

A recent survey found that most employees fear contracting COVID-19 from a coworker and bringing it home to their families. In order to mitigate this concern, have company-wide virtual meetings and information sessions emphasizing the importance of proper social distancing during the pandemic. Host virtual company events (happy hours, coffee chats, etc.) to discourage employees from socializing in person. Finally, make sure that your employees have their temperature taken before coming into your workspace and recommend that your team gets periodically tested for the disease.

3. Consider Your Company’s Situation

The ease and safety of returning to work depends on your organization’s size, location, and purpose. Companies with lots of employees and/or a small office space will understandably have a more difficult time social distancing than companies with less employees or a larger office to accommodate them. Whether your office is well-ventilated and in a populous or desolate location should also be taken into consideration. Furthermore, assess your company function: Is it essential for your customers that you return to the office? Or is it possible to serve their needs from home?

4. Assess Your Preparedness

Even if you determine that returning to work will be most efficient and you have enough office space, you shouldn’t go back until you have a plan. Will you stagger your return or have everyone return at once? Will you allow exceptions? Can you afford to frequently clean your office? Can you provide masks, hand sanitizers, and products to clean workspaces? Consider assigning a task force to organize the return to make it as safe as possible and to deal with any issues that might arise in the return process.

5. Keep Up-To-Date with State & CDC Guidelines

Different states are handling the pandemic differently, and regulations vary substantially. For instance, just recently Texas re-closed bars and reduced restaurant capacities due to a major spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations. The Wall Street Journal has compiled a comprehensive list of how far along each state is en route to reopening. The CDC website offers a plethora of information and safety suggestions for individuals and organizations alike.

In the fourth month of the national lockdown, many organizations are itching to reopen (if they haven’t already). Returning to the office can be appropriate at this stage in the reopening process given that you have discussed it with employees, created a plan, assessed and mitigated risks, and are closely monitoring CDC protocols. Each organization will be prepared to return at a different date (if at all). During a pandemic, there’s no “normal” time to get business back to usual, so do what works best for your organization.