How organisations can bring employees back to the office

Alicia Michael shares some tips for a safe office environment.

As governments gradually relax stay-at-home restrictions, organisations are planning how to welcome their employees back into the office. Agility is vital, and teams need to develop strategies that address the unprecedented global crisis. 

Organisations are dealing with something new every day, as the global pandemic has impacted everything: people, places, buildings, travel and every single interaction we have with others. The overlapping complexities of the post-Covid workplace mean that it is essential to look at all parts of a system to make decisions and move forward.

A user-centred design approach

Organisations are making choices about how quickly they can bring people back to the workplace – and are doing so with a much greater emphasis on employee wellbeing and safety. Work is a social activity, so it is crucial to get employees back to the office, where they have access to the people and tools they need to collaborate most effectively.

Employers must consider all the components of the situation and the needs of all stakeholders before they develop a back-to-business plan, adopting a user-centred design approach to make the essential changes for a safe, engaged workforce.

Employers can be a central hub for tips and wellbeing, leading people in turbulent times.

Time horizons for these discussions, however, have been dramatically shortened. Rather than over weeks, teams now need to make critical decisions every single day and need to work differently due to this heightened pace and the types of choices they are making.

To ensure health guidelines are met in a time of so many unknowns, organisations must stay informed of the latest guidance from health experts, such as the World Health Organization (WHO). Developing a science-based response wherever possible helps guide back-to-work strategies, using global principles that can be customised at a local level for business of any size.

How employees feel

While physical changes are clearly significant, it is also essential that businesses get a pulse on employee sentiment to prepare for their return to the workplace. The workforce has never experienced a global crisis of this magnitude, so it’s impossible to guess how people are feeling.

Employers need to understand people’s concerns and their motivations for returning to the office or will risk losing touch as they adapt to the post-COVID workplace.

The workplace that people return to will have to be a very different place than it was before, but one constant will be the need for people to connect to the organisation’s purpose and feel a sense of belonging, which may have been strained while working remotely.


To meet this need, organisations need to create a workplace that people feel safe to return to, so it is best to take a strong position on safety from the start and relax it later, if the conditions and the science-based evidence allow. People have to feel their company has done everything possible to keep them safe before they feel comfortable returning.

Physical changes: density, geometry, and division

It is important that organisations consider all spaces in the workplace to identify the changes required to meet social distancing guidelines. Simple changes, such as pulling furniture further away from each other, or removing it entirely, will allow offices to conform to distancing guidelines.

Organisations who already have mobile furniture will find this much easier, as employees can make changes themselves to increase distance or change the orientation of their desks. Introducing visual cues will remind employees to stay at a distance, as well as indicate recommended traffic patterns to avoid face-to-face contact.

Temporary separation screens can be added to create division in areas where appropriate distancing cannot be achieved, as well as signage on workstations to communicate which areas should not be used. In meeting rooms particularly, employees need to be reminded not to get too close to each other.

Wherever possible – weather permitting – organisations can increase use of outdoor settings, where people will not need to wear face coverings, as long as they are a minimum of two metres apart. Providing employees with access to mobile tools, especially remote power, enables them to make choices about where to work: indoors or outdoors.

Smart and connected: a data-centred approach to cleaning

Cleaning is a critical component in mitigating the spread of disease and organisations need to take a strategic approach to address the issue. To help identify the spaces that are the most utilised – and therefore likely to require deeper and more frequent cleaning – businesses can use sensors and space analytics data, rather than relying on guesswork.

Companies can also add sanitation caddies throughout their workplace, so employees can self-clean spaces before and after use. Being empowered to protect their own bubbles of space will not only help to reassure people that they are as safe as possible, but will also contribute towards a shared sense of purpose, as everyone chips in to do their bit.

It is essential that employers commit to keeping the office as clean as possible and visibly signify to their employees that sanitation is a priority.

Communication and transparency

Ongoing, frequent communication is key to bringing people back to the office successfully. Employees need to understand what they’ll be coming back to and what the expectations are, so businesses must be completely transparent about what they are doing and why.

Providing employees with handbooks or training sessions will help to acclimatise them upon their return to work but engaging with workers should begin long before that. Staying in contact through video messages and blogs is crucial to keep everyone informed on how the company is responding to the crisis. Employers can be a central hub for tips and wellbeing, leading people in turbulent times.

During an ongoing global crisis, the situation is evolving constantly. Nobody has all the answers, so it is important to keep learning every day to stay informed – and organisations need to communicate these learnings with employees as quickly as they can.

When companies have access to as much information as possible about both the developing crisis and employees’ experiences, they can make the very best choices for their people in a time of uncertainty.


About the author

Alicia Michael is director of EMEA communications at Steelcase, based in Munich.


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