Returning to Work: 3 Strategies to Bring Back Your Employees Safely

Jack Van Tiem, Kelly
July 1, 2020
Download PDF


Preparing your employees to successfully re-enter the workplace is more complex than simply preparing the workplace for their return.

If reopening your business feels normal, you’re doing it wrong

Health screeners lined up outside the door? Check.
Work stations six feet apart? Check.
Every other bathroom sink blocked off? Check.

Ready for your employees to return to work? Think again.

Preparing your employees to successfully re-enter the workplace is more complex than simply preparing the workplace for their return. Many employees have spent the past several months hunkered down at home, in control of their environment, defining the “new normal” for themselves and their families. Now they’re being asked to relinquish that control and venture back to offices, warehouses and factory floors that suddenly seem unfamiliar and even dangerous.

Several common concerns are emerging as Kelly speaks with workers and guides companies through the re-opening:

  • What does it mean to feel “safe” at work during this pandemic?
  • Are businesses ready to put people’s well-being before profits?
  • And why should employees trust their leaders with their lives?

It’s clear that “getting back to normal” will be anything but normal.

To help companies re-open safely and efficiently, Kelly has released a Redefining Work playbook. From innovative office space planning to creative workforce scheduling and remote talent engagement, the playbook guides businesses in making the right decisions during this unprecedented public health challenge.

When it comes to bringing your employees back safely and gaining their trust, we believe the following strategies are crucial.

Meet workers where they are

The world has been through A LOT in the past three months, and employees are coming back to work bearing burdens you can’t see. Statistically speaking, if you have more than 100 people in your company, your workforce includes employees who:

  • have lost someone to COVID-19;
  • have a family member in financial crisis;
  • have been quarantined with their abusers;
  • are suffering from increased anxiety or depression;
  • or are struggling with addiction.

Even if they’re looking forward to returning to work, your employees are likely more fragile and fatigued than they were 90 days ago.

In addition, surveys show nearly one-third of workers do not trust their leadership to bring them back to work safely, and more than half are worried about exposure to COVID-19 at their workplace.

Communicating that you care is important, and hopefully you’ve been doing that throughout the shutdown to keep your employees engaged and informed. But as they come back to your workplace, employees need to see the steps you’ve taken to ensure their well-being. Hold virtual meetings to show what their new workspaces look like before they return to work, and make time to walk them through it all again when they’re back in the office, in the warehouse or on the factory floor. Thoroughly explain the safeguards you’ve put in place to protect them, and show what those processes look like.

Be ready to answer questions patiently and more than once. How will people be screened before entering the building? What cleaning procedures are being followed? Is the cafeteria safe to eat in? What’s the process if I become ill?

Put in the time up-front to show empathy and make your employees feel reassured rather than overwhelmed by all the changes. Emphasize they can feel good about these precautions and that your company is fully committed to their health and safety. The time you invest in these crucial first days will yield benefits in the months that follow.

Throw out (or at least edit) your pre-COVID rulebook

Safety protocols are obviously non-negotiable, and any situation that puts employees at risk must be addressed quickly and decisively. (If you’re unsure about state or CDC guidelines, reach out to a knowledgeable partner like Kelly, whose Emergency Management Team has guided businesses through multiple crises and is doing so again during COVID-19.) As part of that preparation, you need to re-examine company policies about how, when and where work gets done.

For example, firms that refused to let employees work remotely in January have seen workers successfully transition to digital tools like Zoom, Teams and Skype by June, often with minimal impact to their business. Those same firms will need to let people continue working remotely to accommodate staggered workdays, in-office social distancing, and working parents who don’t have child care.

The need for change carries over to blue-collar environments, where flexibility is often perceived as at odds with productivity, and productivity is king. When restrooms and common areas are reconfigured to hold fewer employees, a standard 10-minute break is no longer enough to move everyone through. Likewise, a deadly pandemic is no time for supervisors to cling to punitive point-based attendance systems that force workers to show up sick or lose their jobs.

As companies confront outdated “command and control” management approaches, they unlock the opportunity to pull leaders forward into a new reality that reflects the true humanity of work.

Realize that your company’s brand is at stake

We’ve all seen ugly headlines about how some companies have taken their “essential workers” for granted. It turns out there is very little room for error when dealing with a contagious virus. Yet in a world seemingly spinning out of orbit, some things remain under your control, and companies who treat workers with dignity, class and respect continue to win.

Take one Kelly client who proactively reached out to its furloughed employees, offering optional but highly attended Zoom webinars for workers to engage with company leadership and each other. As a result, 97% of those furloughed workers say they plan to return when the company reopens – a number that leaves competitors in the dust and secures their future workforce.

Connecting with current and prospective employees on both a professional and emotional level is absolutely crucial at this time. Despite record-breaking unemployment, there’s a lot of competition for talent. With safety concerns on their mind and stimulus money in their pockets, workers carefully assess every employment opportunity. Offering sub-par pay and zero engagement simply won’t cut it when trying to attract top talent.

Word travels fast in today’s hyper-connected world, and workers are quick to share bad experiences to “out” companies who aren’t treating them well. How you return your employees during COVID-19 impacts your ability to ramp business back up, and can make or break your brand.

We’re all looking forward to a day when we feel safe again at home, in our communities and at work. That day will come and the current crisis will pass. When it does, the companies that approached the return to work with empathy, flexibility and respect for every employee’s humanity will thrive in a new and better normal.

Jack Van Tiem, Kelly
Jack Van Tiem, Kelly

Jack Van Tiem is the Detroit Territory Vice President for Kelly Services, a global leader in providing workforce solutions. He oversees the staffing and business solutions operations throughout metro Detroit, with a focus on staffing for automotive, manufacturing, retail, financial services, and technology. He is also a member of Automation Alley’s Board of Directors.

Become a Member