Return to the Workplace: The Safety Opportunity (Part One)

Dog-walking hour, immunity cards, and grocery store decontamination chambers. Around the world, organizations and public institutions are considering adaptive strategies to tackle the COVID-19 crisis at hand. But, as we peer ahead into the near term and contemplate how the future of office work will look, organizations are faced with critical choices that will affect employees, clients, brands, and communities for years to come. Amid the uncertainties, companies are in a unique position to have positive, meaningful impact. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report on COVID-19, in eight of ten countries surveyed, people believe their employers are better equipped to respond to the crisis than their country, and 78 percent of people expect businesses to act to protect employees and the local community.

So, how do organizations build on this expectation and take effective action now?

Mottos like that of the Zobele Group, Safer at Work Than at Home, exemplify rising to the challenges at hand. Being well prepared in our current environment means having a plan, and more importantly, knowing how to pivot. There is no one-size-fits-all approach for returning to the office. Instead, iterative, adaptable solutions—those that apply scenario-based planning with defined risk categories—are the name of the game. As you reimagine the working environment of the future, ensure your plans intentionally consider the following:

  • Prioritization: prioritize groups based on criticality to ongoing operations and risk categories. Be sure to document and socialize the data and reasoning driving these decisions.   
  • Flexibility: policies and procedures that balance stabilizing the “now” with an eye towards a more resilient future.
  • Environment: create an environment that provides physical and psychological safety.


Defining the path forward can be a daunting task. Avoid letting it overwhelm you. Guidelines and recent studies can support a balanced return strategy that acknowledges the criticality of essential onsite duties alongside the flexibility of continued remote operations. Using the risk categories developed by OSHA (Lower Risk, Medium, High, Very High), determine how to meet each tier’s needs. Prioritize the key groups required onsite and focus on the accommodations necessary to ensure a positive outcome. Bands have become one strategy, in which leaders classify and clarify where employees fall on a phased approach to re-entry. Also consider economic impact (mild, harsh, severe) and the varying shape of the recovery in different regions and countries (V, U, W) as additional inputs to inform your approach to prioritization.

For example, a company might establish bands A through D, where A is deemed most essential. Another company might work with the predetermined lowest-risk group first, adapt, and then expand. Use scenario-based planning, so you can quickly adjust as the situation and landscape changes. For the groups that need to re-enter the physical office setting, factors including the health and wellbeing of each employee are of the greatest importance.


Determining remote work programs and policies in the next normal is where prioritization meets flexibility. Insights from recent polls and client conversations indicate that most office-based employees do not expect to return to the office at the same frequency as before, if at all. In January 2020, Gallup found that 54 percent of office workers would be willing to quit their job for one that allows them to work remotely, and this was before today's global safety and health imperative. Remote work studies have shown that the most successful programs are ones that give employees choice, both in location for work and the number of days to work remotely. For example, companies are even launching “voluntary” work-from-home policies. In a survey of knowledge workers conducted by Slack Technologies in late March, sectors including business development, product management, accounting and finance, and arts and development reported being able to “work from home with little or no difficulty.” Applying Slack Technologies’ findings, consider the elements of your operations that would benefit from continued remote work options.


Still, with an estimated 70 to 75 percent of the workforce heading into the office for at least part of the week over the next 18 months, creating a physically safe office environment is paramount.

  • First, review the layout and usage of the office space. Kitchen freebies and open floor concepts need to be evaluated in support of physical distancing. Trends include: Anti-microbial surfaces, hands-free fixtures and doors, one-way walkways, staggered desks, individually-packed food containers, and increased air filtration.   
  • Next, install the necessary equipment to safeguard employee comfort and accessibility to tools and protective gear. Trends include: Breathing masks, phone sanitizing services, bacteria-banishing robots, colored carpets signifying safe distances, sneeze guards, and hand sanitizer stations.
  • Third, establish accommodations for employee-specific needs, such as transportation, family care, and sick leave. Flexibility paired with empathetic measures show that you have considered the experience of your workforce holistically. Trends include: Phased office entry, morning/evening shifts that align with individual peak performance, shortened workdays, and contingency plans for potential virus resurgence.
  • Fourth, concentrate on psychological safety. Address employee emotional barriers and concerns while supporting each individual through the behavior and mindset shifts crucial for successfully returning to the workplace. Trends include: Pulse check surveys, employee pledges, and leadership “fireside” chats.
  • Last, process and sustained behavior changes are crucial to making a successful transition to the new office environment. Put robust health monitoring systems in place. Compliance will be an issue if it is burdensome, so stick with user-friendly, repeatable, and thoroughly communicated methods. Trends include: Proximity sensors, thermal scanners, and health screening apps and kiosks.

While there is no generic resolution, companies have the opportunity to transform forward by implementing reintegration planning solutions that are iterative and people-centric by focusing on prioritization, environment, and flexibility. With this approach, you will differentiate by not only stabilizing the now, but also in embedding durability and adaptability for the future.

Anticipating the challenges our clients will face, North Highland has created the “what, when, where, and how” of return-to-work strategies, encompassing physical safety, emotional wellbeing, productivity, and manager readiness.

For more insights on navigating the horizons of crisis response and recovery and prioritizing strategies for a more durable and adaptable long-term future, check out our latest e-book series and white paper.