Article: Getting employees back to the workplace: A guide

Employee Engagement

Getting employees back to the workplace: A guide

As the COVID-19 pandemic drives profound societal and organizational shifts, leaders have the opportunity to return to work by designing the future of work, building on the lessons and practices their organizations executed during the crisis.
Getting employees back to the workplace: A guide

The current crisis is driven by a health problem: we don’t yet have a treatment or a vaccine for the novel coronavirus. Organizations have little control over that. Some businesses and workplaces are beginning to reopen, albeit under extraordinary rules pertaining to physical distancing, personal protective equipment, and physical guards. The efficacy of such measures in the workplace is unknown, and we have much to learn about how workers adapt and function under these circumstances.

Some of the challenges of inviting workers back to the workplace mirror some of the issues that we recognize as commonplace in the return-to-work and occupational rehabilitation literature—the idiosyncratic nature of health and work, individual disease vulnerability, susceptibility to environmental hazards, the need for job flexibility and modification, and differences in work style, social capital, and organizational support. The situation can overwhelm anyone! 

With so much at stake, how should business leaders plan for operating in the post-stay-at-home phase of the recovery? To make sure you have a smooth and bump-free journey towards reopening your workplaces, here is a guide that you should refer to design for the new normal.

The business challenge

The world is temporarily closed. It has been challenging and at the same time, an interesting time for companies, and especially for the HR community because of what we have experienced in the last few months, it would not be wrong to say that it is “our world war” and we, the HR professionals, have to figure out ways to solve this craziness the workplace and our people have been experiencing.

The business climate has been completely disrupted. We have major economic costs and fallouts– we have companies, governments, and economies scrambling to react to this fallout. Businesses have had very polarizing results in the past six months - some are thriving and some experienced bankruptcy. Our working models have changed overnight; we moved into a distributed model hence, changing some of the preconceived notions and rituals around practices like work from home. 

The impact of the COVID-19 has impeccably changed the way we think about work and our workforce. As we step into the new normal, a pertinent question that arises is:

How do we design for the future?

As the COVID-19 pandemic drives profound societal and organizational shifts, leaders have the opportunity to return to work by designing the future of work, building on the lessons and practices their organizations executed during the crisis.

Identify the moments that matter

Employee engagement, experience, and talent brand look and feel very different from what they were pre-COVID-19. Radha Shreeniwas, Senior Director of Human Resources, APJ, ServiceNow shares, “In the past, we relied on office spaces to provide cultural experiences, fabric, and talent experiences. But overnight, we turned to a digital platform.”

Some of the overarching questions, thus, worth thinking about are:

  • How do you create digital experiences?
  • How do you ensure that your employees still feel they are loved, and they are trusted?
  • How do you make your culture and experience come alive in this format?

Here is a quick glance over the areas one should focus on to build on the engagement and experience that matters:

  1. Employee performance and productivity
  2. Mental health, well-being, inclusion and diversity
  3. Work and home life blending
  4. Leadership and management skills

Below is a look at the talent lifecycle and experience as shared by Radha during the People Matters and ServiceNow Cohort on ‘Getting employees back to the workplace: A detailed plan.


The above model stresses the fact that digital experiences now underpin everything and have become the backbone for rethinking our workplace and employee experience.

The reopening framework

Given that we are almost at the cusp of the year 2021 and the country has been relieved from the lockdown and traveling limitations, businesses have started to plan the operations of their onsite workplaces. Alex Margarit, Director APJ - Employee Experience GTM, ServiceNow shared that most of the organizations can be categorized into the following two stages of the reopening journey, as depicted in the image below:

Here is a quick checklist of activities you should follow while planning to reopen your workplaces:

  • Monitoring and maintaining proper social distancing guidelines.
  • Assess what supplemental technology and tools are needed to support collaboration and task management across on-site and remote team members.
  • Determine which functions, work, and roles need to return to the workplace to be effective, and which can continue to work remotely. Use rigor in determining those essential to working physically in the workplace, as this enables a more effective application of safety measures.
  • Arrange for alternative transport methods for staff who rely on public transport.
  • Review expectations around productivity as a result of frequent cleaning of workspaces, hand-washing breaks and other safety protocols.
  • Provide support to teams working remotely. Define practices and policies for remote teams (considering factors such as working styles, norms, and enabling technology), and deliver training on making home environments and remote working effective.
  • Develop and model guidelines for testing, monitoring, space and facilities management, and visitor management geared toward productivity, mental, and psychological safety.
  • Review and update HR policies, procedures, and programs as required, anticipating scenarios such as work refusals or family situations that make return difficult.
  • Build change management and communications plan to drive confidence and motivation in the workforce to return.

COVID-19 is a fast-moving virus and its impact on organizations and the world has been strong and swift. The practices outlined above will not only help protect employees, the community, and company reputation, but also position companies for a smoother transition as they arrange to return to the workplace.

(This guide is framed on the basis of the inputs shared by the CHROs participated in the People Matters and ServiceNow Cohort which was an exclusive CHRO virtual discussion on ‘Getting employees back to the workplace: A detailed plan’. We would like to extend special gratitude to Pooja Malik, Group Head HR, DMI Finance, Pranali Save, CHRO, Icertis, and Neeru Mehta,  Head of HR India region, VP- People Development, Global Logic for extending time to help us craft this guide.) 

About People Matters Cohort:

People Matters Cohorts is a 3-day invite-only immersive program for leaders that provides a unique virtual platform for leaders to learn, collaborate, co-create & network, limited to a small number of leaders to maximize peer-to-peer interaction and learning. Segmented into reflection, assimilation, and application, the 3-day program enables leaders to reflect on their challenges related to the business context, participate in a live session structured to bring all participants together for learning, interaction, and networking in a virtual environment, and post the LIVE session are invited to apply their reflections and learnings on a “Learning-In-Action” project.

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Topics: Employee Engagement

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