Much has been written in the past weeks and months about the business impact of the COVID-19 crisis. I, along with many others, have written extensively about the almost-overnight transition to remote work, as well as many other changes companies implemented to adapt. Now, I will be focusing on considerations for returning to work.

The Three Phases of the Crisis

I am observing three business stages of the crisis: reactrespond and return. Each phase requires much change and innovation, and each is somewhat unique to the company. There is no one-size-fits-all business template. And every country, city and county has a different pace of response.

In the react stage, companies had to come to grips with the new reality. Organizations set up cross-disciplinary swat teams and conducted daily crisis meetings. The functions of HR, IT, facilities and finance were inextricably tied together. Companies transitioned people out of infected locations, shut down retail and branch locations, and started sending people home (and more than 20 million people were moved out of their jobs entirely).


In the respond stage, which is still ongoing for some companies, we see the adaptation of a wide range of business practices to the new reality. Companies are offering funding for home offices and family care, investing in online learning and wellbeing, changing leave and performance-management policies, massively increasing communications.

We’re now entering the return stage, in which companies are looking to get back to a full- (or almost-full) functioning business and starting to plan ahead.

Return to Work: A Time for Business Transformation

The post-pandemic world of work will be different than the one we inhabited in early 2020.  Restaurants are providing home delivery. Entertainment and leisure companies are offering digital offerings. Banks are providing advisory services online. And manufacturers are redesigning their plants and workplaces for a new type of safety.

In fact, a new category around “low-touch” products and services is now needed, and companies in all sectors must learn how to serve customers in a new way. Additionally, tough decisions are needed about the jobs and skills required, where budget dollars should be spent and how workforces should be staffed and organized.

Taking a Lesson from Manufacturing

Pharma and health-product companies such as Novartis, Sanofi, Novo Nordisk and Baxter Healthcare have been running manufacturing plants at full speed throughout the pandemic. Ford has been producing ventilators through an alliance with GM. We all can take lessons from these and other manufacturers about how to return to work.

See also: The legal do’s and don’ts of returning to workplaces

The Safe Work Playbook and Safe Work Supplement, developed by the Lear Corp., provide thoughtful considerations on the considerations needed to ensure employee safety even as the virus lives among us. These resources cover a wide range of issues including: general health screening, COVID-19 testing, personal protective equipment, sanitation measures and physical distancing.

Additionally, OSHA and the CDC have produced a variety of resources for returning to work.

New offerings such as contact-tracing apps, elevator “safe zones,” infrared body scanners and vibrating location sensors are suddenly flooding the market, all focused on business buyers.

What We Have Learned So Far

Let me share some of the things I have learned through the many conversations I’ve had with HR leaders over past weeks and through our Big Reset working groups:

  • Many of your remote workers may not have to come back full-time. Almost two-thirds of the leaders we talk with are convinced that many of the jobs now conducted at home may stay partially or mostly remote in the future. Such changes will reduce office-space requirements and lease costs.
  • Employees who do come back to work are going to be frightened and nervous. Most companies are making physical presence optional for now and are working especially hard to add safety procedures that build employee trust.
  • We have to micro-design every protocol at work: interviews, meetings, meals, restrooms, work commutes and every single manufacturing process. We need to think about distancing, spacing and time-blocking these in detail. This is a huge design-thinking effort.
  • Local site managers are key. You cannot decide or define every protocol in the world from headquarters. You have to empower facility and HR managers to build upon and/or amend corporate guidelines to meet local needs and circumstances. HR, IT, facilities and finance teams must work together to deploy these new practices.
  • HR leaders will need to think about how to handle the potential stigma of infection. This will be a new D&I topic to consider.

Related: What to consider as you write your return-to-work strategy


Where Will This Go?

While most experts agree that we don’t know what the new normal will ultimately look like, the virus spread appears to be slowing in some geographies, and there is great demand for returning to work. We must look at this as an opportunity to redesign work. Only those companies that choose to do so will likely succeed.