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Key points to consider as employers start bringing back employees to the workplace

Rich Deosingh, New York district president for staffing

Rich Deosingh, New York district president for staffing firm Robert Half, says you don't want everyone returning to the office at once so you need a system like making sure desks are available with a certain amount of scheduling or notice. Credit: Robert Half

As more vaccines get distributed and restrictions loosen, companies will be faced with the choice of bringing back more workers to their offices.

But it’s far from business as usual and they’ll have to weigh some serious issues including deciding who will return, how they’ll adhere to safety and distancing, and navigating possible pushback from employees not wanting to return, experts say.

"I think every employer that is trying to return to normal should develop a return-to-work strategy ahead of time," says David Mahoney, a partner and chair of the labor and employment group at SilvermanAcampora in Jericho.

This should include considerations such as physical distancing, safety measures and even customer and visitor contact policies, he says.

As a first step, Mahoney says, firms should start with "trying to find nondiscriminatory ways of deciding who to bring back and when."

Don’t assume someone doesn’t want to return based on factors including age or health, but consider allowing them to return based on seniority or some other nondiscriminatory basis, he says.

Nondiscriminatory basis for return may focus on the employee’s ability to continue performing the essential functions of their job, or how an employee’s return may impact the company’s ability to maintain social distancing in the workplace, Mahoney says.

Also assess whether there’s a valid reason for requiring the employee to return and if you’re even able to bring employees back while still maintaining sufficient social distancing (ie. space may need to be reconfigured), Mahoney says.

In addition, he says, you’d want to develop employee health screening procedures and exposure and quarantine policies that should be applied "consistently" to employees.

Outside of safety considerations, among bigger issues employers will have to deal with are accommodation issues, says David Tauster, counsel within Nixon Peabody’s labor and employment group in Jericho.

There can be disability accommodation requests from those with documented disabilities. There could also be requests from people asking for accommodations (ie. continue working remotely) due to fears of returning to the office, Tauster says.

"Employers are going to face disability issues just as much as they’re going to face pushback morale issues," he says, adding employers need to carefully weigh accommodations they’re granting not tied to a disability.

Give yourself enough time to reopen in case these issues arise, says Tauster, noting July 6 is a common reopening date he’s hearing among employers. "There’s a sense the world will be different in July."

Rich Deosingh, New York district president for staffing firm Robert Half, which has Long Island offices in Hauppauge and Uniondale, says a more proactive approach, if possible, is telling employees that offices are "available," rather than saying they’re "open."

There’s a distinction between the two because the latter places more of an obligation for the employee to return, he says.

Robert Half did that during the pandemic making certain offices available to employees interested in using them starting with its larger Manhattan office, he says. It’s since made more offices available including in Hauppauge.

"Employees could work remotely or come in, but there was no mandate saying come in," he says, noting the firm is operating under a hybrid model presently.

Of course, due to restrictions, you don’t want everyone returning at once so you need a system for office usage like making sure desks are available with a certain amount of scheduling/notice, Deosingh says.

To ensure a smooth return back to the office, communication is critical throughout the entire process, says Rick Maher, chief executive of Turning Point HCM, a Mt. Sinai-based HR outsourcing firm.

Companies should start with a welcome back letter laying out briefly what employees can expect followed by a more detailed COVID safety policy and procedures document that would include such things as level of daily screening required and sick leave policy, he says.

That document should be read and signed by each employee, he says.

Employees would also get a return-to-work checklist of sorts detailing more aspects of expectations and health and safety protocol they must follow, Maher says.

Beyond communication, training for employees and managers should be considered given that they’ve been apart so long. There could be pent up emotions and unconscious bias — such as spouting off political views or anti-or pro-vaccination stances — that need to be managed and addressed, he says.

Also, be sure to define customer interaction — is the office open to employees or customers as well and travel policy, he says.

"You want to overcommunicate with employees because things will be changing," Maher says.

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Fast Fact:

A KPMG survey released in December, found that only 27% of employers planned to return office-based employees to physical locations in the near term, with most pushing back the reopening of their workplaces to later in 2021.

Source: KPMG

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