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Returning to the U.S. Workplace in the COVID-19 Landscape

May 28, 2020

Effectively managing the return of employees to the workplace is not a new topic for any of us, as we’ve all been planning for it since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, but it is entirely unprecedented. There never has been a situation – not a health event, terrorist attack or natural disaster – that has resulted in such widespread and significant disruption or change to our businesses.

It is important to remember that many employees are not returning to work, because work for them never stopped. Instead, we’re talking about returning to the workplace. There is no playbook for the complexities we are facing, and there is certainly no one-size-fits-all approach that will apply to every organization’s entire workforce or geographic footprint. This transition represents a complicated intersection of politics, public health, individual health, personal privacy and financial security.

We offer some insights and guiding principles below to help weigh these complex and often competing interests as employees begin returning to the workplace.

Take an Employee-Centric Approach

Returning to the workplace is the top priority for many organizations at this moment, as it should be. But managing this process can’t be done at the expense of keeping employees informed, engaged and aligned while navigating other COVID-19-related issues – such as pay cuts, furloughs and layoffs – or other “business as usual” internal communications and employee engagement challenges. That’s because missteps with your people can translate to big problems for retention, productivity, not to mention brand reputation issues and negative impacts on consumer and investor sentiment. These checklists will help you examine important considerations that will keep your people at the center of your return-to-the-workplace plans and mitigate some of those risks.

Mind the Evolving Privacy Landscape

Any kind of crisis demands a swift and decisive response, and often that response involves some type of change. Rarely has a crisis rolled across the globe as quickly or comprehensively as the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the changes that come in its wake will be temporary, some may be permanent. But a number of them, if not approached thoughtfully, carry considerable reputational risk.

That’s true of any major changes in the way organizations gather or use sensitive personal data – but it’s especially true of changes in the use of health‑related data. Even asking for basic symptoms for each employee every day to allow access to the building will require a different standard of care, both in terms of how it’s stored and the expectations the individual and others will have of keeping it secure and private. How those changes are navigated will depend not only on the organization, but on the audiences that need to be engaged. And the reputational stakes are high. Public sentiment is likely to be volatile for the foreseeable future, as people weigh their willingness to surrender some measure of privacy against their desire for more freedom of movement or the ability to return to work.

The choices organizations will have to make carry a range of risks, from operational to legal and regulatory, and it’s critical to be fully prepared for the level of scrutiny under which new privacy-related measures may come. That’s why your communications team needs to be at the table as high-level decisions are made, playing an active role in thinking through how or where reputational risk may emerge. Just as important, they can help ensure that the organization communicates clearly and transparently with critical audiences about what changes they should expect and how long those changes will endure. This kind of straightforward communication can not only limit risk but has potential to grow trust with key stakeholders.

Expect Public Affairs Challenges and Opportunities

The COVID-19 crisis has created a tricky landscape for organizations because every move toward returning to the workplace is being scrutinized closely in a very fluid environment. At the same time, businesses are getting conflicting advice and requirements from the federal government, states and even local governments within the same state. Despite all the harm from the coronavirus, there is opportunity for companies that proactively solve societal challenges.

As always, companies need to monitor the situation, think steps ahead and plan for possible scenarios. Being prepared is more critical now for organizations to be able to adjust plans when the landscape shifts. This is a minimum.

To be positioned to navigate the current terrain successfully, our advice to companies is . . .

  • Know who you trust. Who and what guides your decisions about returning to the workplace? Pick the authority that you trust.
  • Stay above the political fray. It’s an election year and with government’s heavy role in the response, reopening has created yet more political fissures.
  • Keep audiences informed. Explain what you are doing, and why, in way that is true to your mission.
  • Look ahead and help solve what government cannot. What can you do that helps solve issues society will face? We will need partnerships to address the many issues that COVID-19 has exposed.

Anticipate the Next Crisis — Your Stakeholders Expect Preparedness

Some of the answers to the most critical questions surrounding return to the workplace are being hotly debated. Amidst this uncertainty and conflict-prone environment, it is on businesses to develop their own plans for reopening, including outfitting employees with personal protective equipment, enforcing social distancing between employees and customers, instituting testing in the workplace and navigating any ensuing hurdles.

We were all caught off guard to some degree by COVID-19 and some organizations’ stakeholders temporarily allowed for some leeway in terms of responding to issues or crises. Now, stakeholders universally have been impacted to varying degrees, from home-schooling to managing grief, and will have little tolerance for incidences in the future. While this is certainly not the “age of perfection,” stakeholders expect that companies have taken the time to prepare for a return and have the necessary mechanisms in place to handle potential crises.

Organizations must rise to the occasion and prepare accordingly. This requires that they build the necessary crisis response architecture, rank their vulnerabilities based on likelihood of potential damage or disruption, and proactively conduct scenario planning to prevent small incidents from becoming bigger crises.

As organizations embark on this uncharted territory, it is important to remember that history will remember how they behaved in this moment. Being proactive and intentional with communications planning will be essential in how businesses and their reputations emerge in the new normal.