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Through a Glass Darkly: Preparing to Return to the (Reimagined) Workplace

As part of our COVID-19 focus on the implications for workers, the workplace, and support for the human capital leaders who must navigate this people-related journey, we’ve looked at the impact this health crisis has had on a wide range of workplace/worker elements and offered webcasts, podcasts, and new and curated content for use while in the midst of this international pandemic. We have just posted our customizable planning tool, Reset & Recovery Planner: Return to the (Reimagined) Workplace    

This journey is both a passage through a storm and the charting of a revised or even completely new course requiring a steady hand at the helm when it comes to workers and the workplace—the CHROs; the leaders of acquisition; talent; total rewards; learning; analytics; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and every other discipline that shapes the worker experience—so that they deliver for customers, stakeholders, and communities even as they address the impact on their own families. We’ve seen acts of courage, compassion, and innovation during this pandemic: CHROs and other HR leaders who work tirelessly to keep essential workers on the front lines safe; make a rapid shift to remote working despite infrastructure and security challenges; reach out to their counterparts at affected organizations for rapid talent redeployment; create plans for furloughs, pay cuts, or layoffs with an emphasis on supporting mental health as part of the approach; include support for affected contingent workers; and lead the effort to, virtually overnight, retrain workers to pivot toward making products like ventilators, personal protection equipment, and hand sanitizer—all of this while delivering essential HR support to those whose lives are forever changed by the loss of family members, their own health challenges, or risky domestic living arrangements. Preserving organizations, workers, and the economy is a daunting task, and human capital leaders are at the forefront as the US experiences one of the greatest labor shifts in our nation’s history.

While the pandemic rages through hot spots like Seattle, New York City, New Orleans, Chicago, and Detroit, as well as in more rural places like hard-hit Albany, Georgia, and Osage County, Oklahoma, the drumbeat of those calling for the restart of our economy grows louder. Balancing the need for economic recovery with concerns about worker safety amidst a disease about which much is still unknown will require extensive planning done through the lens of governmental guidance and mandates, heath directives, business survival needs, consumer trust levels, market demands, and the organization’s ability to actually keep workers and customers safe.

Just what will be the workplace that awaits? Few doubt that the workplace will be different even for organizations or industries that were less disrupted during the pandemic. At the very least, we must reevaluate our past decisions about the business strategy, the product or service lines, how and where work gets done and by whom, how we acquire and develop talent, how performance is measured and rewarded, how employment law will govern what we choose to do, and how we realign workers to the (perhaps adapted) mission and purpose of the organization. The process, timing, and level of disruption will vary greatly by the duration of stay-at-home mandates, as well as by industry, company, geography, pandemic status, availability of widespread COVID-19 testing, availability of protective equipment, and market demands.

Under the provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, employers have an obligation to ensure a safe workplace. Planning to return to work will require a massive emphasis on worker (and customer/client where applicable) safety and work habits, with all changes done in keeping with employment laws, privacy laws and, in some cases, agreements with unions or European Works Councils. And once workers begin to return, in whatever numbers and at whatever speed, the hard work of restoring the organization will continue for a long time.

Below are areas (assessment, preparation, and return) for your consideration as you and your teams plan to bring workers back into the workplace.


  • The business strategy reset/review, its impact (if any) on the skills necessary to execute the business model, and the implications for current/future staffing, contractual, or outsourcing arrangements;
  • Dependent upon industry and business need, the need to return at all to the physical workplace and, if so, which workers actually need to come to the workplace and what work can be done virtually;
  • Remote work effectiveness and productivity, staffing levels, and infrastructure support including collaboration platforms, videoconferencing access;
  • Community readiness such that schools and health support facilities are open, enabling workers with children, elder-care issues, etc., to actually be able to return to work;
  • Relative safety and reliability of public transit and worker comfort with using it;
  • Surrounding community’s ability to provide essential services including medical and food services for workers (especially if the company does not have its own food service options);
  • Viability of all providers, vendors, partners, and suppliers of HRIS systems, payroll services, content, and materials necessary to deliver critical employee-related services;
  • Availability of masks (especially where mandated by law), gloves, thermal scanners, removable forehead strips, hand sanitizers, personal protective equipment (where necessary), which must be replaced or disinfected regularly;
  • Ability to provide reasonable accommodation (for example, modified personal protection equipment, nonlatex gloves) or religious accommodation (for example, face masks that allow for specific religious garb) that must be replaced or disinfected regularly without undue hardship on the employer as per the Americans With Disabilities Act;
  • Employee readiness (those who are/were ill, displaced workers remaining in nonhome locations) and willingness to return; and
  • Repatriation of expats and, if so, whom, how, and when.


  • Significant sanitation and deep cleaning of the workplace, manufacturing plant, shop, restaurant, etc., and a continual regimen to ensure safety for the foreseeable future;
  • Preparedness of procedures, materials, and training for decontamination and cleansing in case of an event;
  • Installation of “contactless” options: soap dispensers in the restrooms, hand sanitizer dispensers, alternatives to ID badge swiping and turnstiles, etc.;
  • Adaptation of the work environment, which may include seating arrangements that allow for greater social distancing (if even possible in some dense office or production environments); defensive plexiglass shields; rerouted employee movement flows (colored carpeting paths or rope lines) to avoid a crush of people at entry and exit points, crowded elevators, congregation in common areas or narrow hallways; procedures on the production line to allow for social distancing, etc.;
  • Determination of health status of those returning to work either through temperature scanning, daily self-assessment to create a QR code to show security, or a “fitness-for-duty” documentation or affirmation from a medical professional or clinic certifying that an individual does not have the pandemic virus (even though some infected are asymptomatic) in accordance with employment and privacy laws;
  • Review and revision as necessary of all HR decisions, policies, and procedures that were adapted or adopted during the crisis as well as any new ones that may be needed (and adjustment given implications of stimulus/Families First package regulations, HIPAA/privacy laws, etc.):
    • Mandatory vs. voluntary return to work and reasonable accommodation, especially for those “at risk” or who may have a household member who is “at risk”; issues of perceived unfairness if some are required to return (with or without a perceived higher level of risk in returning) and some are not
    • Remote work guidelines including “professional” presence/dress, ergonomic working environment, adequate equipment, required service levels, expectations for working hour coverage, and reimbursement for internet access, cell phones, supplies, etc.
    • Absenteeism
    • Bereavement leave
    • Sick leave coverage
    • Furloughs, pay cuts, “hazard” pay, merit increase/bonus freezes or cuts
    • 401(k) or 403(b) plan matches
    • Short-Term and Long-Term Incentive Plans
    • Split shifts, job sharing, staggered hours, staggered lunch/other breaks
    • Flexible work hours
    • Vacation and Personal Time Off (PTO)
    • Pooled banks of PTO and vacation time that may have been or need to be created
    • Carryover/accrual policies
    • Mental health benefits, including virtual therapeutic consultation to address survivor issues, grief, depression, anxiety, etc.
    • If applicable, payment for employees who are medical professionals who want to continue to volunteer
    • Business travel both domestically and internationally
    • Tuition remission, educational support
    • Training for both remote and on-site workers and their leaders in the use of effective videoconferencing, teamwork, project management, etc.
    • Internal training programs with a focus on cross-training, backup support, and new skill development in line with revised business needs
  • Creation of new HR policies regarding worker safety, work stoppage, or alternative work arrangements in the event of a COVID-19 (or other disease for that matter) outbreak in the workplace, including mandatory quarantine;
  • Institution of new HR policies regarding large in-person, “all in,” or town hall meetings; group orientations for new hires; team-building outings; usage of common areas, including kitchen/pantry areas and communal sharing of food; company events and celebrations;
  • Review/adaptation of performance targets and the reset of sales goals, metrics for the performance management process;
  • Review of work processes, approvals, and communication flows that may no longer be effective if the workplace is both virtual and physical (with social distancing and other new impacts);
  • Review of talent acquisition processes and policies, which may include decisions re:
    • Hiring freeze, except for “critical” and “essential worker” positions
    • Processes for talent acquisition more broadly
    • Policies for filling critical positions that require background checks/drug screenings that are no longer feasible, or for relying on the government’s ability to authenticate I-9 form employee documentation
  • Communication plan to help workers prepare for a return to work, understand policy changes, and accept the conditions under which they will be expected to perform and how the organization provides for their continued safety;
  • Preparation for security, mental health, and other professionals to receive workers in the early days of return; and
  • Guidelines for allowing suppliers, visitors, clients, customers, and meeting attendees into the workplace and how they will be screened in order to protect workers.


  • Screening/health check entry stations;
  • Distribution of all required protective gear, masks, etc., and instructions for use;
  • Orientation for all workers, virtual or on-site, of all the new processes, procedures, rules;
  • Provision of any training or reskilling necessary for existing jobs or redeployment;
  • Training for workers on new software/products/technology, business model pivots;
  • Provision of employee wellness programs to include physical, mental, and financial elements;
  • Continual communications about mission and purpose, strategic plan, and tactical objectives;
  • Creation/revision of efforts to determine, and take action on, the engagement level of workers on a regular basis; and
  • Continual communications to re/build culture beginning with addressing the past (effects of layoffs/furloughs/compensation impacts, lost colleagues, affected families, etc.), balanced with a solid plan for recovery and renewal and a positive focus on “green shoots” of recovery, celebration of milestones and, as they come, celebrations of “wins.”

To make this even more of a challenge, you will need to think through your responses given a variety of economic recovery scenarios, like those from The Conference Board’s economists and the specific business scenarios of your organization; you’ll need to establish milestones or events that will trigger the execution of some part of the plan. You will need to continually revisit your assumptions as new economic and health data become available. And in this age of transparency and social media, your actions will likely have an impact on your brand for years to come.

Preparing to return to work is only the next step. Like undulating waves, there will likely be successive “new normals” as our world continues to recover from this crisis and brace for the next. While no one has a crystal ball, a reimagined working world of the future may be:

  • An organization with more reliance on remote working, except for jobs that require a physical presence (for example, on the shop floor, manufacturing plant, retail store, grocery store, or hospital/health care facility);
  • More reliant on contractual/gig workers;
  • More digital with less “friction” for workers, their customers, and clients;
  • Redesigned physical workplaces that are more spacious, with a few people working in glass enclosures vs. open floor plans;
  • Supported by electronics that alert the wearer to social distancing requirements and a rise in temperature, as well as apps that suggest when elevator usage is low, allow for contact tracing, etc.;
  • Adapted so that factory processes are streamlined to greatly increase human distancing;
  • Increased reliance on robotics and automation so fewer humans are required on the floor and robots can be monitored remotely; and
  • Increased opportunities for innovation in delivering quality products and services to customers while ensuring employee safety.

HR leaders should now be actively planning how and when to return to a physical workplace or to a radically different working world. Our Reset & Recovery Planner: Return to the (Reimagined) Workplace prompts many of the people-related questions to consider as the leaders of an organization make sense of what timing, cadence, and choices are right for them. Additional sources of information include:

We’ll continue to provide our thoughts on what the “new normal,” “next normal,” or “reimagined” workplace will mean for US workers and share what human capital leaders at our great member organizations are doing to prepare us for the recovery ahead. We hope that you’ll visit our website often for these new insights.

Thank you for all that you are doing for the nation’s workers; your professional expertise makes a critical difference to them, their families, and their communities. These are difficult days and uncharted waters, but let us take heart, knowing that our country’s best days are still ahead.


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Rebecca L. Ray, PhD

Executive Vice President, Human Capital
The Conference Board


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