Finding safe ways to return to work in the time of COVID-19

COVID-19 has disrupted nearly every aspect of our daily lives. Our plans and expectations for 2020 seemed to change in an instant. Industries across the spectrum are feeling the continued effects of the pandemic and seeing profound shifts in the way we view our work and work environments. As an organization with 240+ employees and multiple locations, we’ve been navigating the complexity alongside our clients.

We’re working to stay on top of the evolving pandemic to best understand and predict how it will impact the way we live, work, learn, and play now and in the future.

Back to normal?

Despite a prolonged period of continued change, organizations are looking to the future to understand how they can get back to work or maintain business continuity despite the pandemic. And while many have proven the ability to conduct business virtually, results from the past few months indicate it doesn’t come without challenges.

In the absence of the physical work environment, workers are learning new skills and technologies to be effective in remote work. Yet, vital in-person connections are still missing. We often hear concerns related to training and development, effective mentoring, and efficiency of innovation and knowledge work when teams are distributed.

Strategy is key.

For resilient organizations, direct connections to people, processes, and strategies are important for maintaining employee engagement and recruiting and training top talent. The ability to return to the physical, collective environment is an opportunity to strengthen those bonds and reinforce the mission and strategic vision of the organization.

But rushing back to normal isn’t the answer. Even highly engaged and resilient employees need to see that their employer is mindful of the impacts of the pandemic on our productivity, engagement, and wellbeing. This is the opportunity to reflect on what we’ve learned and created a new way of experiencing work and the workplace.

So how might resilient organizations help people still feel at home as they return to something that’s different? And how will the work environment provide a sense of place, belonging, and respite?


You need a concrete approach. We can help.

Planning for an unknown future is difficult, but necessary. This plan will look different for everyone but should remain flexible and focus on navigating and reducing complexity. Trying to manage the situation will likely just lead to frustration.

  • Strategy Development: What’s shifting in your business because of the pandemic, and how should your work force, workspace, and policies shift in response? From establishing new work from home opportunities, accommodating employees in multiple locations, and… safely re-entering your physical offices, the overall approach should be grounded in your organization’s purpose and vision.
  • Policies & Procedures: Clearly defining your approach for flexible schedules, working from home, and navigating the office helps reduce complexity for employees as well as ensuring that you comply with local health guidelines and best practices.
  • Workspace Assessment: The physical environment itself is critical for supporting a healthy return to the workplace. Furniture arrangements, capacities, and traffic flows can impact the safety and wellbeing of employees and visitors. Environments that feel sterile or low functioning will be detrimental to a successful return.
  • HVAC Evaluations / Modifications: Understanding the role of temperature, humidity, and ventilation can have on mitigating the spread of viruses. Slight changes to your HVAC system can have a major impact.
  • Sourcing Furniture & Equipment: Whether it’s furniture that supports employees shifting to a work-from-home model or safety equipment and cleaning supplies, many organizations are facing the challenge of sourcing new and varied items.
  • Signage & Wayfinding: As more individuals venture back into the physical workplace, signage and wayfinding can help reinforce new ways of engaging with our environment and each other.
  • Communication Plans: Frequent communication with employees will help ease anxiety. Communication plans ensure that the message is clear, aligned, and consistent.
  • Health & Wellbeing: Employees are experiencing record levels of stress and anxiety through the pandemic. Support through wellness coaching, events, and programming can help your employees increase immunity and resiliency in order to cope with added complexity. Healthy, resilient employees are better equipped to bring their best selves to their work.

Future of Work Resources

We’re developing a “Future of Work” blog series which looks at strategic ways organizations can safely, responsibly, and supportively bring employees back to the office. We’ll be posting often so come back soon to see what’s new.

Physical Space Considerations – Returning to work and bringing employees back to the office amid the COVID-19 pandemic is likely going to look different for every employer. But long before HR sends any kind of “Welcome Back” email, there are some common elements of the physical workspace that organizational leadership should examine, with an eye toward creating safe experiences. Read more.

Employee Considerations – While we’re all eager to get back to some semblance of normalcy, it’s important to recognize that employees are still navigating the complexities wrought by the pandemic and will be for some time. For that reason, it’s important to keep employees in mind as your company plans its return to the workplace. The following aspects cover core staff elements, but there are likely others relevant to your business and operations. Read more.

Cleanliness & Safety – By now, you’ve likely heard ad nauseum the things you can do to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Chief among them is hand washing, wearing a mask, maintaining six feet of physical distance, increasing outside air in HVAC systems, and disinfecting surfaces. As employees plan their return to the physical office, employers have to work these, and other related protocols, into their return-to-work plans. Based on our desire to create safe and functional workplaces, we offer this guidance. Read more.

Building Trust – Yes, building trust in person is easier than building trust virtually – no argument here. But let’s not lose the essence and value of trust either. It’s not simply about where trust is built, nurtured, or restored, but rather why and how the character, competence and behaviors are developed and nurtured to establish trusting relationships. The latter can occur in any environment, it just might take a little more work in the virtual world. Read more.

Opinions on Future of Work – While it may feel comforting to seek the tangible amidst ambiguity, we understand the very nature of today’s globally connected environment ensures there is no simple answer. Significant shifts towards a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous landscape were only accelerated during the pandemic, and as a result tomorrow’s workplace could look completely different. Read more. 

Integrating Business & People Strategies – Strategic planning can be a daunting effort, especially in times of extreme change and uncertainty. It’s incredibly difficult to hit a moving target and, for fear of failure, leaders may choose to either completely overreact and go way too big or underreact and do nothing at all. Neither are great options. Read More.