Clear Communication Is Key to Effective Return to Worksite

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. September 29, 2021
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employees coming into work

​Whether now or once the COVID-19 delta variant has receded, clear communication is essential to a successful return to in-person work.

Some employees have already returned to the worksite; others never left. But for those still planning their return, transparency, safety protocols and detailed expectations are important.

Employers should communicate to employees whether they will return to the workplace every workday or have a hybrid in-person/remote schedule, said Amy Traub, an attorney with BakerHostetler in New York City.

"Employers are finding two camps among their workforces—those who are really anxious to return to the workplace and the way it was, and those who are content working remotely in what they view to be the new normal," she said.

To address concerns about returning to the worksite among the latter group, "there is a lot of planning to do, and there is no better time than now to get started," Traub said. "Employers who wait until the last minute will find themselves playing whack-a-mole in the myriad issues that are sure to arise come opening day."

Employees also should be told what may be required of them upon return, such as mask-wearing, frequent hand-washing, travel precautions, daily health certifications and proof of vaccination, she added.

Employers may emphasize vaccination policies, too. "Many companies have issued vaccination mandates for staff to be present in office locations, meet with clients, attend work-related events or gatherings—and in some cases to continue employment," noted Susan Bickley, an attorney with Blank Rome in Houston, and Brooke Iley, an attorney with Blank Rome in Washington, D.C., in a joint e-mail.

Christine Walters, J.D., SHRM-SCP, an independent consultant with FiveL Company in Westminster, Md., said other employers are giving employees a choice between vaccination and regular testing, and offering disability-related and religious accommodations.

"While employees across the world have become accustomed to working from home or remotely, company culture and employee collaboration are essential to the success of many businesses, which means that in those organizations, employees need to be in the workplace at least some of the time," Traub said.

Explain the Rationale Behind the Employer's Approach

Whether returning to in-person work full time, adopting a hybrid work arrangement or allowing some remote work to continue, an employer should be able to articulate to its workforce why it's adopting whatever approach it selects, said Katherine Dudley Helms, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Columbia, S.C.

"It is probably wise to make it clear that there may be adjustments" to policies in the future, she said. As has been the case since January 2020, employers need to "remain ready for whatever this virus throws at us next."

She added, "Clearly spell out that working remotely is a privilege and if someone is not performing or is needed in the office, being required to work in the office either part time or full time may be required by the company."

Alternative Work Arrangement Policy

Any alternative work arrangement policy should, according to Marilyn Higdon, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Memphis, Tenn., outline:

  • The procedure for requesting and the qualifications required for an alternative work arrangement.
  • Employee responsibilities, including compliance with existing policies and procedures, and any procedures specific to the alternative arrangement like work hours and attendance, attendance at meetings, time-keeping, job performance, meal and rest periods, and overtime.
  • Any impact on leave and paid time off.
  • Use and misuse of company property, including any equipment that will be provided by the company and protection of proprietary company information.
  • Any reimbursement of expenses.

How to Know When to Reopen

Employers with multiple worksites may need to make regional decisions on whether it is safe to bring employees back to the workplace, said David Epstein, SHRM-SCP, director of domestic human resources for Doctors Without Borders in New York City. For example, if transmission rates are low in one location, that location could remain open. On the other hand, if another facility is in a hot spot for transmission, "the prudent action would be to close that location and switch to remote, if possible," he said.

An employer may decide it has differing business needs within one worksite, noted Jennifer Barna, an attorney with Epstein Becker Green in Newark, N.J. "It may have a strong business need for one group of employees to be in person, while other departments or units may have more flexibility for a hybrid schedule," she said.

"Be very clear up front about both the expectations and the consequences," said Anthony George, an attorney with Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner in Denver. "Most employees do not want to return to the workplace most of the time. If the expectations are vague, employees will take advantage of that."

"The best practice is to make these expectations consistent for groups of similar employees," said Courtney Blanchard, an attorney with Nilan Johnson Lewis in Minneapolis.

"Employers can remind their employees about the silver linings of in-person work that may have been forgotten," Barna said. "Some employers have planned events to make the return to work feel celebratory—while still ensuring safety measures are taken—such as hosting food trucks, or they have planned onsite or offsite charitable or team-building events to remind everyone of the positive energy that comes with working in person with others toward a goal."

Fear of missing out on personal relationships at work, face-to-face contacts, group lunches, meetings and office parties is a strong motivator to return to the office, Higdon added. 

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