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Back to the Workplace: How to Plan Your Reopening

A welcome back note on a keyboard next to a bottle of hand sanitizer.

​After a year of working remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. workers are starting to see a light on the horizon. The number of vaccinated Americans is rising daily while deaths and infections are trending downwards—albeit slowly. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released guidance that allows vaccinated people to gather unmasked in small groups, and some cities and states are pulling back on restrictions. As a result, companies may be thinking about getting workers back into the office.

Angela L. Shaw, SHRM-SCP, vice president of human resources at Campus Advantage, a property management firm in Austin, Texas, with properties in Texas, Florida and Mississippi, is grappling with this very decision. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott last week lifted the state's mask mandate and opened the state completely, so the company may have to bring everyone back—and quickly. Last March, the company locked down its 65 student housing locations. Employees at the corporate office stayed home for a while, but by the summer could go back to the office as needed. Most people, however, simply worked from home.

SHRM Resource Spotlight
Coronavirus and COVID-19

Employers need a plan to bring people back to the workplace, while still supporting employees who continue to work from home. Here are some steps to follow to create your own back-to-the-workplace plan.

Put together a reopening team. Campus Advantage created what it calls a Covid-12 team—a group of a dozen company leaders—in March 2020. It's been invaluable as the company navigated difficult decisions in a constantly changing world. "Thankfully, HR is not responsible for everything. Our Covid-12 team has leadership from every team," Shaw said. The team met twice a week during the first six months of the pandemic, and Shaw said she made sure every decision was "human."

Send out a reopening survey. Although your reopening team will make the decisions, you'll need to get feedback from employees too, said Amber Clayton, SHRM-SCP, director of the Knowledge Center at the Society for Human Resource Management. "Employers should be including employees in the process and finding out what their perceptions are," she said. This will be especially important if you plan on requiring everyone to come back immediately or if you require them to get the COVID-19 vaccine first. You'll want to ask how people feel about coming back, their feelings about the vaccine and if they might have any extenuating circumstances such as children whose schools are still closed.

Create health and safety guidelines. Circle of Care for Families and Children of Passaic County, Inc. in New Jersey works with children and young people who are in crisis or need. Many of the company's nearly 100 employees have direct contact with families, so the organization needed safety regulations that would keep both cohorts healthy. To mitigate the spread of the virus, they created a COVID-19 screening app that employees fill out on their mobile devices. Once they pass the screening, employees are asked to schedule time to come in to limit the number of people in the workspace. "They look at the online Outlook schedule, and if someone else who sits next to them is also scheduled, we ask them not to come in," said Mary Pita, SHRM-CP, the company's human resources director. Pita suggested bringing people back slowly— something her team did as they went back out into the field.

"As employees returned to the communities we serve, it was done in pilot phases, having debrief meetings prior to having additional employees join the next phase of the pilot. This helped us to test out the procedures we had in place and receive feedback from employees prior to rolling it out to all care managers."   

Buy the right equipment. As an essential services food manufacturer, Gel Spice Co. in Bayonne, N.J., never closed its factory, but the office staff worked from home. Now, as the company looks to bring everyone back, HR Manager Xiomara Ceballos, SHRM-CP, is applying the lessons Gel Spice learned with factory employees at the beginning of the pandemic to the office staff. For example, early on, employees complained about thermometers that were placed directly on their foreheads, so the company purchased three stand-up temperature stations for touch-free assessments. They also hung signs asking everyone entering the facility to wear a mask and have their temperature taken.

Campus Advantage's Shaw pointed out that the right equipment also includes hand sanitizer, Plexiglas dividers, stocked washing stations, educational materials and masks. Communicate with employees so they know what is expected of them. "Put rules into place and make sure people can see them. Our rules—you can't eat in the breakroom together, you need a chair in between people in the conference room, you need to wear masks all day—are on signage and reference materials."

Consult experts. Pita said she and her team are constantly checking guidelines from the CDC and Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and they joined the Employers Association of New Jersey. "When there's a major local change, they send out a communication and show a webinar. If they're not sure what it means for us, they try and work it through."

Your team of experts could also include lawyers who can advise you on sick and family leave requirements and state and local laws.

Come up with contingencyand alternativeplans. Companies faced difficult decisions and financial hardship when they were forced to shut their doors last March, which is why HR should create backup plans in case COVID-19 numbers start to climb again. HR also should create alternative plans for workers who are either unable or unwilling to return to the workplace.

"You may want to think about creating a flexible schedule—coming in late, leaving early—and making accommodations for employees who aren't ready to come back," Clayton said.

Karen Bannan is a freelance writer based in New York.

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