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What to Consider Before Asking Employees to Return to Work

By February 19, 2021March 23rd, 2021No Comments

Employers who sent their employees home at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic have spent the past 11 months adjusting to the nuances of a virtual work environment.

As of mid-February, the United States is still seeing more than 85,000 COVID-19 cases each day — but the arrival of multiple vaccines has given employers (and well, everyone) some hope that a “return to normal” is on the horizon.

There is, however, an elephant in the room; employees who have been working virtually throughout the pandemic want to know if and when they’ll be asked to return to work in-person.

For most employers, there’s no clear answer to that question — but there’s a lot to consider before asking employees to report to work in-person.

Prioritize safety before mandating a return

“Safety first” is a platitude that has found new significance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before asking employees back to work, employers must make work environments as safe as possible, communicate new safety policies to employees, and ensure that those policies are followed and enforced.

Fear of contracting COVID-19 is the most obvious barrier between employees and the will to return to the office. An October 2020 survey found 73% of U.S. employees fear a return to the workplace could pose a risk to their personal health and safety. Of employees who have returned to the workplace, 42% say they’ve experienced preventive measures that were either ineffective or not enforced.

In February, President Joe Biden ordered the U.S. Department of Labor to give unemployment insurance to workers who feel unsafe in their workplace. Biden’s move sends a clear message to employers: make your work environment as safe as possible, or your employees could leave and seek unemployment.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides guidance to employers on how to prepare workplaces for COVID-19, with suggestions including:

  • Appointing a coordinator responsible for COVID-19 topics
  • Developing and enforcing physical distancing plans
  • Developing an infectious disease preparedness and response plan
  • Implementing health-screening procedures
  • Providing personal protective equipment to employees

The latest OSHA guidelines encourage employers to adopt policies for employee absences that don’t punish workers as a way to encourage potentially infected workers to remain home, ensure that coronavirus policies and procedures are communicated to both English and non-English speaking workers, and implement protections from retaliation for workers who raise coronavirus-related concerns.

Employees aren’t in a rush to return to the office

The general consensus is that most employees are not eager to return to their pre-pandemic work environment.

Regardless of if they’re vaccinated, more than half of employees say they want to keep working from home even after the pandemic ends, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.

And, according to a January 2021 survey from anonymous network Blind, a third of employees would even quit their job if asked to return to the office.

“Far fewer people will want to return to the office five days a week,” Michael Schmidt, a labor and employment attorney at Cozen O’Connor in New York told CNBC. “The million-dollar question is how many days fewer than five will be required?”

The majority of employers will stay virtual

The reality is that both employers and their employees are eager to embrace remote work even after the pandemic.

A survey by S&P Global found 67% of employers expect working from home to be permanent or long-lasting. Tech employers, in particular, are leading the charge in  adopting permanent flexible work models that allow employees to choose where they get their work done.

Salesforce, the largest private employer in San Francisco, announced in February a permanent shift to a “flex” work situation where employees come into an office for a maximum of three days per week. A small portion of their employees will work from an office four or more days per week, while employees who don’t live near an office will be able to work remotely indefinitely.

Brent Hyder, the Chief “People Officer” at Salesforce, told The Guardian that the pandemic has made the company reassess their employee’s needs and reevaluate the purpose of in-person work.

“An immersive workspace is no longer limited to a desk in our Towers; the 9-to-5 workday is dead; and the employee experience is about more than ping-pong tables and snacks,” Hyder said.


Lia Tabackman is a freelance journalist, copywriter, and social media strategist based in Richmond, Virginia. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, CBS 6 News, the Los Angeles Times, and Arlington Magazine, among others.

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