Across the country, businesses are planning how best to return to the workplace as the world continues to struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic. Naturally, one of the key considerations is the need to keep employees physically and psychologically safe. According to a recent online survey by Mercer, nearly half (45%) of responding employers have experienced issues getting essential workers to report for duty because they are afraid of catching the virus. As non-essential employees are called back to the workplace, employers face similar, if not greater, challenges that will impact the business for the long-term.

“How organizations step up for their people during this time of crisis will undoubtedly leave a mark on their future success,” says Suzanne McAndrew, global head of talent advisory, data and software at Willis Towers Watson. “Naturally, this places HR at the forefront of managing all of the people-related actions, including defining new ways of working that foster safety, inclusion and wellbeing.”

Read all of HRE‘s coronavirus coverage here.

While HR clearly has a major role to play in facilitating the return to work, collaboration is going to be key, as reopening will be a far more complex process than closing, according to Lorna Friedman, global health leader of Mercer’s multinational client group. “This is a fantastic opportunity for HR to collaborate with others and to bring the voice of the employee into those discussions,” she says.


In the return phase, safety is paramount, leading many employers to not only ramp up cleaning and optimization of work space to ensure social distancing, but also implement new practices to prevent those exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms from exposing others. That creates a need for HR to partner closely with legal counsel to discuss “things like hazard pay, EEOC rulings with regard to temperature screenings, questionnaires or contact tracing, and to understand the parameters of privacy,” says Friedman. As workplaces reopen, HR must also be attuned to input from medical experts, including their own occupational health and safety teams, as this is a fluid situation and new outbreaks could necessitate a return to lockdown, says Friedman.

Not surprisingly, all these unknowns have raised anxiety levels to new heights. The vast majority of people had never experienced a pandemic and have been understandably worried about the virus’ potential to cause severe illness and possibly even death. Factor in isolation and possible exacerbation of family issues or substance-abuse problems, and you’ve got a serious increase in mental health concerns. The prospect of returning to the workplace while there is still no vaccine or viable treatment is a scary proposition for many employees, says McAndrew. She recommends HR partner closely with an EAP to ensure workers have access to mental health services to help them address those concerns and hopefully minimize the long-term emotional impact of the pandemic.

Related: How COVID-19 taught HR ‘a valuable lesson’ on mental health

The pandemic has not only been psychologically damaging, its financial impacts have been devastating. As many businesses face unprecedented economic constraints and challenges, HR should look to its finance partners to not only fund any changes that must be undertaken in the workplace, but to help those employees who may be returning to work before their kids’ schools reopen, says Friedman. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the 2008 recession, she says, women returned to the workforce in smaller numbers than men, largely because the cost of childcare was a barrier. HR and finance can work together to mitigate a similar scenario in the aftermath of COVID-19 by providing funding for caregiving.

Throughout the pandemic, HR leaders have discovered the immense value of partnering with their communications teams. From basic information about the company’s plans and how they impact employees to opportunities to stay connected with colleagues and senior leaders through virtual town halls, social “get-togethers” via Zoom and fun contests designed to keep employees engaged and spirits up, internal communications initiatives have never been so crucial. While workers clearly crave information, “HR leaders must remember they are being bombarded with communications now more than ever,” says McAndrew. That’s why a strategic approach, one guided by HR in tandem with communications, is paramount, particularly as plans are being made to bring employees back to the workplace.


See also: Bersin: Here’s the back-to-work playbook for companies to succeed

“Authentic, transparent and coordinated communications are critical,” says McAndrew. “HR and communications need to work together to find the right tone, approach and cascade of messages.”

HR and communications should also work together to ensure the voice of the employee is being heard at this pivotal time. Utilizing pulse surveys and virtual focus groups, organizations can gather feedback about employees’ concerns and suggestions that can help shape the “new normal,” says Friedman. During this time of uncertainty, employees are likely to be more honest than ever. Perhaps they are scared to return to the workplace. Possibly they discovered they are more productive working from home and would like to continue doing so. Or maybe they are raring to return. Whichever is true—or somewhere in between—their input is a crucial component of a successful return-to-work strategy.