Editor’s note: This article was updated August, 2021 to reflect new guidance from the CDC.
Going back to the office in 2021, after more than a year and a half of working from home, is going to be a time of transition for everyone. From the rise of hybrid offices, to employees trying to get a clear picture of what returning to the office looks like in 2021— many questions must be answered.
As varying guidelines at city, county, state and federal levels continue to evolve, a thoughtful and strategic return-to-office plan will be needed to understand requirements, help keep employees safe and protect employee privacy.
This article will provide helpful tips to help you organize and execute a plan to reopen the office, navigate “return-to-work anxiety” and welcome employees back to working in-office.
Organize return-to-office plans in a durable binder with printable dividers for easy access. Review and revise color-coded office seating and shared spaces to create a plan that allows for social distancing.
Organize a return-to-office planning team
As you prepare to return to the office in 2021, there will be a lot of information to consider. Take advantage of the diverse voices in your company to ensure your plan has been considered from a variety of angles and perspectives.
Company leaders from key departments such as legal, human resources, IT, operations and health & safety are ideal additions to a return-to-office taskforce. Representatives from employee constituent groups are also great to include to make sure employee concerns are addressed.
As a group, it’s important to make sure that CDC, EEOC and OSHA guidelines are properly understood, considered, and followed as well as city, county and state guidelines. While local guidelines must be searched by city or county, there are online resource centers for COVID guidelines by state available.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – a federal agency that conducts critical science and provides health information that protects against, and responds to, health threats.
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) – enforces federal laws against discrimination in the workplace.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) – sets and enforces regulations to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for employees.
Create a written return-to-office plan
Get your return-to-office plan down on paper. Especially in its earliest stages, seeing everything laid out gives everyone involved in planning a better view. When finished, clearly documented policies and procedures are easier for management to enact and employees to follow.
Your return-to-office plan should give employees a good idea of what to expect when they return, including:
- New seating arrangements (if any)
- Social distancing and/or mask protocols
- Vaccination policy and/or requirements (if any)
- Return to work policy for employees after having COVID-19
- Hybrid and/or work from home policies
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Thought starters for writing your return-to-office plan
As you create your return-to-office plan, it’s important to consider both where and how employees work. Here is a short list of questions your office reopening team can work through considering the physical environment (where) people work:
- Do employees have enough space to practice social distancing?
- How many people can safely gather in shared spaces?
- Are there workstations or equipment shared by multiple people? It may be necessary to create a rotation schedule.
As a team, consider these questions about how people work, and how that may need to change when the office reopens:
- Does everyone arrive to work at about the same time? This can cause crowding at entrances, elevators, time clocks, break rooms and other communal areas.
- What are your current cleaning procedures? Compare them to CDC methods for cleaning and disinfecting, which includes how to properly disinfect to kill surface germs.
- What will you do if someone shows symptoms or contracts COVID-19? Regularly updated CDC guidance for dealing with COVID-19 in workplaces and businesses can help with many tough questions about returning to the office in 2021.
- Will you require or ask for proof of COVID-19 vaccination? These are big questions on everyone’s mind, since federal law does allow for it (see below). However, state laws must also be taken into consideration and may contradict federal laws.
Can you require that employees get a COVID-19 vaccination?
According to the most updated EEOC guidelines (federal law), yes, with exceptions.
While EEOC laws do not prevent employers from having a vaccine requirement, such a requirement that disproportionately excludes “employees based on their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin” could be in violation.
In the updated guidelines, the EEOC also cautions that, “Employers should keep in mind that because some individuals or demographic groups may face greater barriers to receiving a COVID-19 vaccination than others, some employees may be more likely to be negatively impacted by a vaccination requirement.”
It should also be noted that if vaccination is required and/or requested, reasonable accommodations must be provided. For example, allowing employees unable to receive the COVID-19 vaccine to work from home.
Can you ask employees whether they have had a COVID-19 vaccination?
According to the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), an organization of HR professionals— under federal law, yes, you can ask for proof of vaccination but you should exercise caution.
Essentially, simply asking whether an employee is vaccinated or asking for proof of vaccination is generally not in violation of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), or Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA).
However, asking follow up questions is strongly discouraged as reasons a person may not be vaccinated could be disability related. Also, when asking for proof of vaccination, employers should only ask for the bare minimum, such as a vaccination card, in order to avoid sharing protected medical information.
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Execute your physical back-to-office plans
Plan to complete any physical changes to the workplace before employees return. Here’s a short checklist of common environmental controls you can implement to reduce the spread of germs:
- Create more space between people. Reconfigure desks and workstations to be 6 feet apart (in all directions) wherever possible. Another option could be leaving empty desks between people.
- Use physical barriers. If spreading out is not an option, you may consider adding clear acrylic dividers, or other types of impermeable barriers to help prevent germs from spreading.
- Reduce work stations and hot desk Stagger schedules or adopt a hybrid WFH schedule and share desks. Less desks means more room to spread them out.
- Reconfigure communal areas. Define maximum capacity for communal spaces and remove or rearrange tables and chairs as necessary. Post signage, floor decals and table signs to help people maintain social distancing
Communicate return-to-office policies
Start by distributing your finalized return-to-office plan to employees via email. Here are four solid tips to employ after sending to ensure that everyone is informed and understands what will be expected of them:
- Require employees to sign written statements confirming that they have read all new policies/protocols.
- Have managers conduct team meetings to answer any questions regarding the return-to-office plan and/or new policies/protocols.
- Conduct an online orientation before employees return to the office.
- Post COVID-19 safety signs and floor decals to inform people about new policies such as screening/temperature check stations, face mask requirements and social distancing practices.
Educate employees on how to reduce germ spread
Now that vaccinations against COVID-19 are available, CDC recommendations for protecting yourself and others have changed. For unvaccinated employees, reducing the spread of germs is still the number one priority and CDC recommendations include:
- Getting vaccinated
- Washing hands often
- Maintaining social distancing
- Wearing a mask indoors
- Wearing a mask outdoors when in close contact
- Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces
- Monitoring health daily
Encourage increased hygiene. Post plenty of
CDC guidance for fully vaccinated people continues to fluctuate in regards to masks, social distancing, COVID-19 testing/screening, travel and other precautions. As the situation is constantly evolving, CDC resources should be checked regularly.
Provide supplies and support for employees returning to the office
Having a solid plan in place and visible to employees can go a long way to easing worries about transitioning from WFH to in-office. Here are some additional ways to help employees settle in more comfortably by showing them that you care about their safety and well-being:
- Support mental health by encouraging employees to practice good work-life balance. Create an office culture that supports healthy habits like taking breaks away from the computer.
- Provide mental health services for employees worried about returning to the office.
- Create individual hygiene kits for a charming way to welcome people back to the office while also encouraging practices that reduce the spread of germs.
- Help keep personal belongings separate from other office supplies. Provide employees with durable waterproof labels that can be wiped down and disinfected.
Maintain and improve return-to-office 2021 protocols
It will be normal to evolve your plan over time as your return-to-office team reports back on updates to CDC, OSHA, state and local guidelines. The team should also lead regular evaluations to identify what’s working, what isn’t and how to improve protocols.
Preparation will be key for helping your employees return to the office safely when the office reopens, and as we all move forward. Find more office supplies for coronavirus safety that can help you effectively return to the office in 2021.
Please note, the contents of this article and related articles on avery.com are for informational purposes only, are general in nature, and are not intended to and should not be relied upon or construed as a legal opinion or legal advice regarding any specific issue or factual circumstance.