The Workplace in the Coronavirus Era: Communicating New Rules of the Road

As companies contemplate a return to the workplace, they face an unprecedented set of issues regarding not only safety, but communicating and enforcing a new code of conduct governing employee interaction and behavior.  Developing a return-to-work plan that protects the health and safety of your team is only the first step.  Managing employee expectations, communicating reentry decisions, and having a mechanism for resolving inevitable employee disputes will also be critical, and the potential fallout from any missteps is substantial.

We believe clients should consider the following before communicating a return-to-work plan.

1.       Understand the legal and regulatory landscape  

The legal and regulatory framework will likely vary depending on your jurisdiction and may change over time.  Those with offices in multiple locations may need a general protocol, which can be modified and enhanced to align with specific regional rules.  Consult legal experts to assist in navigating the complexities of the newly promulgated COVID-19 health mandates.  Also consider the circumstances in which you may go beyond strict legal obligations.  For example, if an employee does not feel comfortable returning to work, but has no legal reason to refuse to join his or her colleagues in the office, will you still require them to attend in person?  If so, what are the repercussions if they decline; if not, what parameters are you comfortable setting for work-from-home practices?  Gaining a firm grasp on the nuances of legal issues will inform your reentry plans while appropriately managing your liability risks.

2.       Convene an internal team to develop, direct, and communicate your return-to-work plan

Establish a dedicated team to oversee return-to-work planning, including executive management and representatives from all necessary functional areas such as legal, HR, operations, security, IT, and others.  This team must be empowered to make timely decisions – and communicate them – while avoiding “too may chefs in the kitchen.”  Think of it the same way you would assemble a team to manage a crisis.

3.       Anticipate and plan for employee disputes

The politicization of safety measures already is leading to workplace confrontations among employees.  We’ve seen emotional and menacing outbursts that easily could have devolved into violence had management not intervened.  Minimizing such encounters begins by explaining the rationale behind expected workplace conduct and eliminating ambiguity.  Use clear and concise language, update information promptly and engage in an ongoing reinforcement effort – including by executive leadership.  In addition, consider setting up confidential mechanisms for employees to bring concerns and rule violations to management’s attention.

4.       Set the right tone

Whether eager to return to the office or opposed, most employees will have some level of anxiety regarding the transition.  Leaders who fail to address the emotional impact of the pandemic run the risk of appearing tone deaf or callous.  Acknowledging the emotional element will help build trust and a renewed sense of purpose throughout the workforce.  Additionally, leaders must “walk the walk” by showing up in person themselves and following the rules.  This could be an important opportunity to strengthen their connections with employees, boost employee engagement, and improve overall corporate culture.

5.       Be flexible and responsive to employees’ needs and concerns

Without support from your employees, even a well-crafted reentry plan will fail. Make sure your organization has a mechanism in place for fielding and responding promptly to employee inquiries. Employee feedback should be encouraged and considered at every step of the reopening process, and employers should be prepared to make reasonable adjustments to reentry as the process continues.  While leaders will want to accommodate special requests, well-conceived schedules for an effective, safe and productive return to the workplace can be upended by granting too many exceptions.

6.       Make communications a two-way street

Make sure reentry policies are easily accessible to all employees – for example, an internal COVID-19 website can be a helpful resource to house and disseminate information and host training sessions to educate workers on new policies. In addition, build a reliable, two-way communications channel between employers and employees.  Employees want to know who is making the reentry decisions and who they can turn to with questions; employers want to know how their workers are feeling so that they can anticipate and prepare for potential workplace disruptions. Laying the groundwork for an open line of communication at the outset will help build a sense of trust and confidence for the future, and ideally minimize the risk that employees will turn to social or traditional media to air issues.

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