COVID-19: Return-to-work considerations for businesses

12 May, 2020

In a crisis, it's easy to focus only on the immediate and short-term situation, but planning ahead now can make it easier to accelerate quickly during recovery and enable your organisation to emerge stronger after the crisis passes. Most companies have already pivoted to a new normal. Eventually, this crisis will subside, and you'll want your business to be ready when it does. What will it take to get your business moving again?

Returning to work is a complex problem, with many questions to consider, especially from a workforce point of view. How can you ensure the health and safety of your people? Can all of your staff come back to work at once, or should their return be scheduled? What will it cost to bring people back to work?

The impact of COVID-19 might vary across your different business units, and return-to-work timelines may differ substantially. This applies not just in your local location but across the jurisdictions you operate in.

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Preparing for recovery and readying for return to work

Many organisations are moving into the next phase of their response to COVID-19. Having rapidly activated their crisis management contingencies and met the initial challenges of the coronavirus crisis, one of the most critical challenges businesses need to solve now is evaluating when and how to gradually bring employees back to the workplace.

There are a number of key decisions to be made across four areas as you prepare your return-to-work strategy. Before you do, you need to set up and mobilise a return-to-work task force. Who are the key people who should be involved in the task force? Who are the key influencers and leaders who will lead the activation of and engagement with your return-to-work strategy? They should design and facilitate a return-to-work strategy workshop that includes the input of key stakeholders from every part of your business. It should also include inputs from the workforce, accounting for their concerns and considerations as they begin to think about coming back to work, and what steps can be taken to alleviate or mitigate those.

Your task force should operate alongside a transition office which coordinates your return to work response and promotes welfare, compliance and efficiency throughout that process. Their considerations should include reviewing the effectiveness of your COVID-19 response to date: what has worked well, and needs to be replicated going forward? They will be responsible for executing and managing your return-to-work strategy, as well as monitoring and measuring the progress you have made so far, and the distance you still need to travel as your business returns to work.

Key decision criteria

The task force and transition office have decisions to make across a range of key criteria, as well as a number of potentially competing considerations. They need to consider differing scenario plans for key decisions, and define and manage your action plans on the basis of those decisions as you move into the next phase of your COVID-19 response. We outline the key criteria and some of the considerations related to each one below:

Health and safety considerations and concerns

  • Ensure compliance with Government and HSE guidelines
  • Consider EU privacy legislation for tech solutions
  • Ensure the work environment is safe and sanitary
  • Establish protocols for the use of shared equipment or workspaces
  • Evaluate appropriate medical protocols to form part of a RtW process, such as anonymised temperature checks
  • Review environment, health and safety and emergency protocols to align with HSE guidance

Types of work and sequencing the return to work

  • Identify critical or contractually-obliged services and related roles
  • Identify roles that require interaction with other people (on-site or field), or with shared technology or machinery
  • Understand where risk and compliance issues are magnified if work is not managed on-site
  • Assess where productivity decreases significantly if work is performed off-site

Cost and revenue implications for return

  • Understand costs incurred or saved in bringing people back to work - what are the additional on-site security, cleaning fees, PPE costs involved?
  • Identify and stand up new revenue streams or expand existing offerings; are new products services more appropriate, viable and deliverable in the new environment?
  • Plan for fluctuations in typical business demand during the COVID-19 recovery period

Worker needs and preferences

  • Assess employee welfare and mental health in the current climate, in person where possible
  • Understand your workers' personal situations—childcare, financial—and any implications of those factors on their productivity
  • Assess workers' attitudes towards health and hygiene in the current climate
  • Evaluate comfort with remote working and perceived effectiveness of collaboration tools or remote ways of working
  • Consider your internationally mobile workforce and business travellers, where are they based and how can they RtW safely?

Creating a return-to-work transition plan

Your transition planning should account for every possible eventuality and impact that COVID-19 could have on your workforce. From the way you bring people back into the office if at all, to the configuration of the workplace and ongoing health and safety measures and procedures, your plan needs to be robust, flexible and capable of being reconfigured at short notice. You should also consider establishing an incident management team, tools and processes in case of further limitations or restrictions caused by the coronavirus crisis and stipulations coming from the Government and the HSE about workplace safety.

Operations

The way you return to operations is an area most likely to need careful attention. You don't want to ramp up too quickly and overreach your capacity as an organisation or misjudge the appetite and comfort of your staff as they come back to an environment they have not been in for some time. Develop a site-level schedule week-by-week and day-by-day, based on volume forecasts, national regulations, and modelling based on your scenario planning. Are there roles that can continue to be done remotely, and which ones should be ramped up gradually? Review your cybersecurity and IT protocols as a potential shift to more long-term remote working arrangements and prioritising areas of the business to scale back up will bring with them risks.

Facilities

Your people will have gotten used to the concept of social distancing and considerations around close contact and possible transmission. This means you need to plan for a workplace that enables safe distancing and avoids overcrowding. Should you think about staggering shifts or having rotating teams? Can you remodel the office infrastructure to create space and limit contact? Invest in tools and infrastructure that continue to securely enable virtual collaboration, such as collaboration software, network access and laptops, together with the appropriate identity and access management, data trust and threat detection protocols.

Health and safety

It is essential for your workforce that they know you have put in place policies and protocols to ensure you operate and will continue to operate a safe work environment. There will need to be more stringent, regular cleaning of the work environment appropriate to the scheduling of operations mentioned above. How can you implement physical distancing and personal protective equipment use guidelines? Can you stagger work shifts or breaks to limit close contact situations. Do you need to establish anonymous temperature checking or fitness declarations?

Change and culture management

It should be borne in mind that your people have been through a significant and potentially traumatic time. Their sentiment and sense of safety will be paramount in ensuring that the return to work is as smooth as it can be for people who have gotten used to facemasks and the fear of transmission. Consider how you can smoothly manage the adoption of new working practices and arrangements. It is essential that you establish awareness, understanding, commitment and adoption among your workers, whether through training or via an ongoing education and engagement strategy. Your people will have concerns, so be prepared to lead with empathy and understanding.

Four actions you can take now as you plan the return to work

Establish a return-to-work (RtW) task force

Identify your internal leaders and stakeholders who will lead mobilisation of your return-to-work response. They may already be in place managing your response to the crisis, so consider if they need to be redirected or replaced in those roles.

Establish guiding principles for the RtW transition

Work with your task force leaders to identify the primary goals of the return-to-work transition. Consider what that experience will be like for your employees and stakeholders. Identify their priorities and major areas of concern, and ensure you have answers to their questions.

Conduct workshop to launch RtW planning

Design and facilitate return-to-work strategy workshops with RtW task force to address your employee and stakeholder concerns and considerations. Consider how you will address the four RtW decision categories in your reboarding programme: what are the key messages around health and safety, type of work, financial, worker needs and preferences?

Create a rhythm of continuous scenario planning

Conduct scenario planning on an ongoing basis to help you understand what a RtW may look like. Establish visibility over how your organisation will deliver a safe and productive RtW. Consider the impact on your capacity and operations in the event of a surge or drop in demand, as well as the risk of a reimposition of COVID-19 restrictions by the Government.

We are here to help you

As events continue to unfold, we know that the workforce challenges you face are mounting. There's no doubt that the weeks and months ahead are going to be challenging and the priority now is ensuring your business can progress and succeed in uncertainty. We are ready to help you as you face the future. Contact us today.

Contact us

Gerard McDonough

Partner, PwC Ireland (Republic of)

Tel: +353 1 792 6170

Ciara Fallon

Director, PwC Ireland (Republic of)

Tel: +353 1 792 8857

Ger Twomey

Director, PwC Ireland (Republic of)

Tel: +353 1 792 7303

David Keane

Senior Manager, PwC Ireland (Republic of)

Tel: +353 1 792 8253

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