Return to Office: No Rush?

May 20, 2020

COVID-19 Roundtable Discussions
Executive Networks’ COVID-19 virtual roundtable series continued on May 14, with more than 30 members sharing some of the pressing strategic and operational challenges surfacing at this stage of the crisis. Thank you to the members who participated in these virtual roundtable discussions. This document summarizes a call from May 14th. Some approaches discussed may have since changed.

No Rush to Return to the Office

  • Hunkering Down for the Longer Term: Several members referenced recent news reports about some companies like Twitter and Facebook planning to keep office employees remote until 2021 or longer. One member shared that his company now has 20,000 call center employees successfully equipped to work from home—an effort that included providing equipment stipends and home internet for a significant number of employees. Now, looking at the possibility of a delayed return, his company is considering additional home office equipment investments, such as second monitors for some workers. Travel and company car budgets are being repurposed to that end.
  • Returning at the employee’s pace: One member said that more than half her company’s employees self-reported that they intend to come back “right away” when offices reopen. The company only had about 10% of its population in flex working arrangements prior to the crisis. Even so, the company has redrafted its flex policy and people will be allowed to work from home for as long as they need to. “Our CEO keeps putting it out there that people do not need to return to office—no matter the reason—if they don’t feel comfortable or safe,” she said. Another member reported that her company has a robust re-opening playbook for every single one of their 80 global office locations, but their pulse surveys indicate that employees are not ready to go back. Plans have been delayed.
  • Few are communicating return dates: A member company with major office locations in London and New York recently told all employees in those locales to expect to be working from home until at least Labor Day. As the member put it, “We were getting a lot of questions about returning to the office, especially in New York, which is why we felt it important to communicate the Labor Day date as the earliest possible scenario.” The same company’s offices in Tokyo and Singapore also remain closed, with no timetables announced. Their Shanghai office is open, however, at normal staffing levels.
  • Phased approaches continue to be the norm: In an approach more typical than not, one member company has coded all global offices as “red, yellow or green.” The green category includes locations in less impacted markets, with six set to re-open within the month and another 25 are “next up” but must meet specific criteria before they open. “For everyone else, we’re telling people that you’re a while off, yet,” he said.

Setting Expectations for the Return

  • Orienting to the new ‘normal’: As a phased return remains the consensus among member companies, HR leaders are focusing their efforts on the groups that are returning first. One member said that they’ve created an orientation video for those coming back to work, setting the expectations that there will be questionnaires, thermal scanning, masks, bathroom protocols, appointments to the cafeteria for lunch, etc.
  • Mixed approaches to testing: Some companies are testing employees, while others have made the decision not to test because of accuracy, logistical and liability concerns. Some are doing tests as the business needs require them. For example, one member said that if a customer requires a salesperson to have a test before entering their facility, they will test.
  • Health benefits providers not particularly helpful; other partners more so: Two members expressed disappointment that their primary U.S. health benefits providers have not been particularly helpful in planning the return to work. Two other members reported helpful partnerships—one is using its broker, to help develop re-opening plans. Another said their real estate partner, which owns most of their global buildings, is “ahead of the game” and has been very helpful. Another member said the decision to hire local doctors in their HQ city as consultants has been particularly helpful.
  • HR teams staying remote: Several members reported that their HR teams are not returning to the office in the first phase. With the exception of HRBPs, nearly all HR employees are working from home. One member said his payroll team initially pushed back on working from home, but is now 100% remote.

Wellbeing and Mental Health

  • Employee assistance programs proving their value: Several members reported that their established Employee Assistance Programs are seeing record usage. One member sent a company-wide video recently reminding people about their global help line. The video had the highest open rates of any the company has ever sent. Three member companies reported partnering with Thrive on wellbeing and have been pleased with the work thus far.
  • Mental health pulse surveys: Multiple member companies are conducting regular pulse surveys around wellbeing issues. Two members in particular said they have been pleasantly surprised by results that are showing employees highly satisfied by their companies’ efforts. As one member put it, the workforce is more comfortable talking about mental health than in the past.
  • Encouraging vacation: Facing a potential PTO glut in the second half of 2020, many members are encouraging people to take time off to ‘re-charge’ as they work remotely. One member said her CEO had been asking people to take time during his global town halls. “We’re sending the message that employees should not feel like they’re letting the company down by taking time off. They’re actually helping.” Another member company recently launched a “bonus day” campaign—giving all employees an extra bonus day off if they take at least one additional day of PTO before the end of June. A third member said leaders in his organization are now being encouraged to demonstrate taking time off. “We haven’t yet mandated that employees take time off,” he shared. “But If the current trend continues, I would not be surprised if we start requiring people to use their vacation.”

Thank You

Thank you to all who participated for your energy and enthusiasm! We will have more of these Virtual Roundtable Discussions to continue the conversation and send out surveys and resources on specific topics concerning COVID-19.

If your team is dealing with similar issues or have questions you’d like answered please fill out the form below!

May 14 COVID-19 Emergency Member Session Recap Return to Office: No Rush?

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