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Planning the return to work needs flexibility, communication and data

Julie Jares Profile picture for user Julie Jares October 6, 2020
As companies consider a return to work amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, Workday's Julie Jares outlines four key elements to crafting a plan with employees at the center

Welcome back note with sanitiser and mask on keyboard © stephaniepy - Shutterstock
(© stephaniepy - Shutterstock)

No one has a playbook on how to respond to a global pandemic, and how and when to reopen businesses amid one involves complex issues.

Fear of getting sick from being at work was cited as a top reason for not returning to the workplace, a recent PwC survey found, and employees who are willing to return are clearly relying on employers to keep them safe.

To accomplish both tasks — return workers to the workplace and keep them safe — requires planning, real-time data, analysis of the data, and the ability to quickly pivot if needed.

Companies have been planning and re-planning since March, with the only constant being continued change. With myriad factors to consider — health, local guidelines, governmental policies, employee sentiment, facility readiness, and personal protective equipment (PPE) — many companies have also had to shift their return to work plans. Salesforce, for instance, recently extended its work-from-home policy to July 31, 2021.

Here at Workday, we've centered our return to work planning on core values, and put employee needs at the center of any discussion or decision. With conditions continuing to change, Workday identified four key elements to crafting a return-to-work strategy that can assist businesses of all sizes.

1. Keep a pulse on employee sentiment

"Absolutely central to the work we're doing is having the insights around how our employees are feeling and making sure we understand that," says Greg Pryor, Workday senior vice president, people and performance evangelist.

Workday adapted its Feedback Friday survey initiative, which was already a weekly tool to measure employee sentiment, after the fast shift to a fully remote workforce. Survey questions in March focused on employee well-being and productivity, and how Workday could better support employees.

The insight gave Workday room to breathe. The surveys revealed that 80-85% of teams continue to be productive at home, so the company could take a cautious 'wait-and-see' approach to reopening offices.

2. Empower local decision making

Local managers are closer to local conditions, inside and outside of the office. Workday has long known that if it has local decision makers, decisions are faster and they're more often the right decisions.

With COVID-19, Workday has local decision-making teams assessing local risk factors including infection rates, hospitalization rates, shelter-in-place orders, and the situation with schools, daycare, and public transportation. The local officials also assess workplace readiness, such as whether they have enough PPE and sanitizing products. Local decision makers also look at location readiness, coupled with general employee sentiment data.

With all of that data, local officials are better able to make the right decision. Time won't be spent readying a location if there aren't a large number of employees opting to return. Managers and leaders also prioritize who they'd like to return first based on the nature of the work. That data, too, is compared with the employee opt-in process to determine who will be the first to return to the office.

While Workday's US office locations continue to be closed for the rest of 2020, some offices in other parts of the world have opened on a limited basis.

3. Be flexible

When it comes to safely returning to the workplace, preferences are going to change, and so is the virus. That's why flexibility is critical. Being able to adapt and change based on all elements that come into play will empower decision makers and assure employees that those decision makers can pivot if necessary.

A scenario planning mindset helps decision makers see how changing factors affect each other. Workday has done hundreds of variations on plans based on available information that later changed. In fact, the entire impact of COVID-19 on businesses has required scenario planning. Workday, for instance, had just finished its annual planning cycle when COVID hit. Workday immediately sprang into modeling scenarios, settling on three scenarios that allowed the company to focus on what mattered most — including tracking cash and whatever big levers it had to pull to impact financials. With three scenarios, leaders had a manageable process and they could make important decisions without data overload. The same type of scenario planning will help companies with return to workplace plans as conditions change, such as site capacity, community risk, levels of critical supplies like PPE, and employee sentiment.

4. Embrace open communication

Workers need to know what's going on in the community and the steps the company is taking to keep them safe. View open communication as a two-way street. While leaders should frequently share information with employees, they should also frequently solicit feedback from employees. This reinforces for employees that the employer cares about them.

Technology can help keep people connected and informed, whether it be via announcements or video content previewing an updated in-office experience, checklists, schedules, and other important information.

A critical piece in reopening and returning to the office is leveraging employee sentiment data, which Workday gathers via its survey capabilities, to understand how many people have an interest in or business reason for coming back to the office. Workday also uses Workday Journeys — part of our own Workday People Experience product — to create personalized experiences for people, so that social distancing doesn’t become social disengagement. For example, Workday Journeys helped employees transition to remote work, with curated content providing tips for situations such as working from home with kids.

Worker privacy is also key. Let employees know, for instance, how their information, such as daily health attestations, are handled and purged. An environment of open communication lets people know that while leaders may still be writing the playbook, they are putting employees first and thinking about the relationship between the workplace and the workforce.

One size doesn't fit all

Every organization will have a unique strategy to map to its facilities and workforce requirements. Planning return to work amid a pandemic is a whole new challenge for chief human resource officers and their companies. Having the right data and the right mindset will enable companies and local leaders to make the right decisions, and then adjust if needed.

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