From the Trenches

Return to Work

Chances are you’ve already invested a lot of time, energy, and maybe money, too, to shift at least some portion of your staff to a remote work environment during the pandemic. Now that businesses are beginning to open back up to varying degrees, when should your workforce return to the office?

There are many factors to consider, not the least of which is still safety, but there are others—the quantity and quality of work being done, new post-pandemic human resources issues, and the erosion of corporate culture from too much time apart, to name a few.

Let’s start with the first and foremost issue—safety. Because there is still so much we don’t know about the expected track and impact of COVID-19 in the next year, it’s obvious that the safest and in many cases the simplest approach is to continue to work remotely. But, is that the best business move? Is it even practical? Safety, while critically important, isn’t the only factor.

Each business has to assess the impact of continuing to have a remote work force, either in full or in part. Are work levels on par with what was accomplished in office? What about the quality of work? If the quantity or quality of work has substantially suffered, or you believe the work product cannot be maintained, then the next question is, can your staff easily return to the office?

Bringing staff back isn’t as simple as hanging an “Open for Business” sign. Can you implement and maintain all the safety protocols, cleaning methods, and health monitoring practices to minimize the chance of your staff getting and spreading the virus? How much of your staff is likely to have childcare issues due to school or daycare closings? What does your state recommend? Some states, such as California, recommend continuing remote work when possible.

If the outlook for your business to continue working remotely is good, there’s one last issue to consider—the issue of how to maintain corporate culture and morale, intangibles that are built up when people work together, typically in person. Whereas at one time, staff might congregate in the breakroom, grab a drink after work, and get to know each other during team outings, these traditional team-building by-products and practices are not possible. However, the need for social and team rituals are even more important now than they were before the pandemic—or you risk watching the all-important corporate culture you’ve worked so hard to create slip away. What new practices can you instill for staff to get to know each other remotely? To stay in touch? To team-build? To keep spirits high?

My suggestion is to do what you can to have as much of your staff work remotely as is feasible and for as long as possible, mixing in some fun whenever you can. Then, when it’s time to return to the office, be sensitive to employees’ concerns, stay on top of safety procedures and other issues relating to COVID-19. While the year to come may be challenging, we can still take care of business and each other.

Recommended reading: Designing a Remote Worker Policy, Must Haves for Remote Workers, and Monitoring Employees’ Health: Off-Duty & On-Duty.

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