What Boards Need to Know About Employees Returning to Work

When the COVID-19 pandemic first broke out in March 2020, millions of workers were forced to relocate their workplaces to their bedrooms, living rooms and kitchens. Fifteen months later, as mask mandates and other restrictions loosen amidst the vaccination of adult Americans, companies are faced with the task of transitioning their workers back to the physical workplace. As they do so, their boards of directors should keep the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the social unrest it wrought, at the forefront of the conversation.

PricewaterhouseCoopers says that the health and safety of the workforce should be management’s top priority. To achieve this end, cleaning crews should be hired for strict and frequent sanitization. This may also mean implementing hybrid models of three days a week in the office and two from home, or distancing cubicles and offsetting schedules. Not only will these measures decrease exposure risks for the employee, but they will mitigate potential liability risks for the employer.

To maximize the value addition of returning to the physical workplace, boards must deliberate on which employees are demonstrably underproductive outside of the physical workplace in order to prioritize them for return. It will be one of the “hard questions” that all good board directors are used to asking: do our employees really need to return to the workplace? While executives may be making haste to return to pre-COVID normalcy in the hopes of achieving pre-COVID balance sheets, boards should not write off the productivity of remote work. Instead, Deloitte advises that boards take the time to fully consider all opportunities for business and workforce strategies.

Given the vast array of considerations to take, companies should take careful note of board composition, and form multi-disciplinary teams that do not lack external advisors in the public health area. It would also be prudent for boards to stay on top of global, federal, state and local guidelines, especially publications from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Boards should also schedule hearings with professionals in the legal, human resources, information technology, operations and health and safety areas, as well as representatives from employee constituent groups.

Many employees will have difficulties reacclimating to onsite work and addressing these problems will smooth the process. While being understanding to each employee’s situation, Ernst and Young suggests putting into place a flexible reward framework that incentivizes return. Another way to make return more attractive to employees is to work on building a strong work culture. Shearman & Sterling proposes a phased approach to employee returns, in which employees who want to work in the office could volunteer themselves.

Finally, boards of directors should remember that current conditions are still unstable. While the majority of adult Americans have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, a resurgence is not impossible. As such, every board director should work to maintain flexibility in return-to-work plans as employees make their way back.

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