Return-To-Work Strategies: How HR Is Answering the Impossible Question

By: Brian Westfall on September 18, 2020

NOTE: This article is intended to inform our readers about business-related concerns in the United States. It is in no way intended to provide legal advice or to endorse a specific course of action. For advice on your specific situation, consult your legal counsel.

“When can we return to work, and how can we do so safely?”

Ever since offices around the country shut down earlier this year due to the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic, this has been the big question on every company’s mind.

For many companies, the answer to the first part of this question is, “soon.” According to a Software Advice survey of HR leaders, 51% have told their employees they can return to work by the end of the year, with 30% allowing employees to return by the end of this month alone.


The answer to the second part of that question—how to do so safely—is a lot more complicated.

Employers have to come up with a plan that keeps workers as physically safe from the virus as possible in order to prevent illness and avoid liability. That’s a given.

They also need to make significant strides to give employees psychological safety. Not only will productivity and engagement plummet if workers don’t feel safe being back at work, but 37% of employees in a Software Advice survey say they would actually consider quitting their job if they were forced back to work and didn’t feel comfortable going.


The devil is in the details. Who returns and who stays home? How will you maintain social distancing? And what’s your plan if an employee tests positive for the virus?

For HR leaders—who, according to Gartner, have been tasked by 86% of organizations to come up with their return-to-work strategies—these are the impossible questions, and the clock is ticking to provide answers (full research available to Gartner clients).

To help, we surveyed HR leaders and employees to learn where their plans and preferences for returning to work align, and where they differ. Combined with advice from HR experts, and guidance from leading organizations such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the goal of this report is to give you the resources and advice you need to put together an airtight return-to-work strategy for your organization.

You have questions, we have answers. Let’s get to it.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

When should we return to work?

Who should return to work?

How do I keep our workplace safe?

What do I do if a worker tests positive for COVID-19?

Case study: Phone2Action

The most important question of all

When should we return to work?

A majority of HR leaders say they’ve already committed to reopening their workplace this year, but more than a quarter (27%) admit they still don’t have a definitive timeline in place. If you’re like them, you have a lot of factors to consider when deciding on a return date.

When we asked the HR leaders who have already returned or set a return date which factor played the biggest role in their decision, 21% cite their workplace being allowed to reopen at that time, while 18% say they expect a COVID-19 vaccine to be available by their chosen date.


While HR leaders have been looking at factors such as state mandates and a potential vaccine to decide on their reopen date, employees have been focusing on a different factor: the number of COVID-19 cases in their area.

In our employee survey, 89% of those working from home due to the pandemic say they don’t feel completely comfortable being in an office setting right now. When asked what would make them feel comfortable, a majority say they won’t feel completely comfortable being in an office until their area has had no new COVID-19 cases for a certain amount of time.


If you’re in a heavily populated area, or one struggling to contain the virus, this may not happen until 2021 or later.

Deanna Baumgardner, owner of small-business HR consultancy Employers Advantage, LLC, has been advising small businesses on their return-to-work strategies. She emphasizes the importance of factoring employee comfort in to company decisions:


Deanna Baumgardner

Owner at Employer’s Advantage, LLC

“You have to make sure you’re incorporating comfort and safety for them when they return to the office. Otherwise, they’re going to be sitting there, anxiety-riddled, wondering if they can move from their desk.”

Keeping employee comfort top-of-mind, here are some best practices for selecting a return-to-work date:

  • Continually monitor employee feedback, CDC guidance, and the COVID-19 situation (cases, hospitalizations, testing capacity) in your area. The CDC is continually updating their guidance for businesses based on the latest information.

  • Do a hazard assessment of your workplace. Depending on the policies, equipment, and technology you’ll need to put in place to keep in-office workers safe (see the “How do I keep our workplace safe?” section below), you may need more time and money to prepare than you thought, which will impact your return date.

  • Challenge the assumption that you need to go back at all. The pandemic may have pushed a lot of companies into the deep end of remote work, but many are realizing the water’s not so bad. The possibility of getting rid of your office for good may not be so crazy if your workforce is able to be productive from home.

Who should return to work?

Once you’ve set a date to reopen, you need to figure out which workers will be required to return, and which will have the option to stay home.

Talking to our HR leaders, we learned that many companies are empowering their workers to decide for themselves—41% say they are giving every employee the option to come back into the office or stay at home, with only 17% requiring every employee to return to the office when they reopen.


Giving all employees (except critical on-site staff like your office manager) the option to return or stay home is recommended for two reasons.

First, it allows each worker to pick the work environment that best suits their needs and preferences. While more employees in our survey say factors such as work-life balance and job satisfaction have been better at home, factors such as productivity, workplace setup, collaboration, and connection to the company culture are better in an office setting. Each setting has benefits, and some benefits matter more to certain employees or teams than others.


More importantly, by letting employees make their own decision about returning to work, you’re mitigating a number of factors that can’t all be accounted for in a blanket company policy. Some workers are immunocompromised, for example. Others are caring for older parents or relatives. Then there’s a major disruptor every working parent is dealing with right now: school.

“The majority of working parents are having to do school at home, so going back into the office isn’t going to help them,” Baumgardner says.

Besides giving employees the option whether to return at all, you should also give them options for how they return. Baking in flexible scheduling options beyond the typical 8 to 5 will not only allow employees to work around other needs (like schooling), but can also reduce the total amount of bodies in your office at any one time—lowering the risk of infection.

Baumgardner offers three scheduling options that she’s implemented with her own clients:

  • Allowing employees to come in at night. “There might be some people that prefer to work in the evenings, so they can take care of homeschooling during the day.”

  • Staggering which days employees come in. “We have seen some clients make A and B shifts. Group A comes in on Mondays and Wednesdays and Group B comes in on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so they’re still getting some of that collaboration and direction, but it’s limiting the number of folks in the office at one time.”

  • Splitting work between in-office and at home. “Employees are really pushing for more of a hybrid approach. We’re working with our clients to accommodate those who want some flexibility and don’t want to be in the office all of the time.”

Of course, the more options you give employees for returning to work, the harder it will be to track and manage their choices. This is where the right software can be incredibly valuable.

Using an employee pulse survey tool, you can create a custom survey and email it to every worker to record their return-to-work preferences. You can then use an employee scheduling system to create optimized shift schedules that accommodate these preferences.


Shift scheduling in Dayforce (Source)

Learn which employee scheduling systems users rate as the best with our FrontRunners report.

Once you know how many employees are going to be in the office at one time, you can start strategizing for how you’re going to make your workplace safe.

How do I keep our workplace safe?

When we asked workers what their employer needs to do to make them feel safe in an office setting, a majority of respondents asked for the following:

  • Do daily rigorous cleaning and disinfecting of work surfaces (66%)

  • Require employees to wear masks (55%)

  • Hold fewer in-person meetings (54%)

  • Change the workplace layout to promote social distancing (52%)

Not only did most of the HR leaders we surveyed say they would implement the measures employees demanded above, they also said they would add additional measures: contact tracing and daily employee temperature checks.


That’s not all. OSHA and the CDC have each published guidance on additional steps employers should take to keep employees safe in the workplace. Here are the highlights:

  • Promote frequent and thorough hand-washing. If soap and running water are not immediately available, provide alcohol-based hand rubs containing at least 60% alcohol.

  • Encourage workers to stay home if they are sick.

  • Encourage respiratory etiquette (e.g., covering coughs and sneezes).

  • Install high-efficiency air filters and portable air cleaners and open windows to increase ventilation.

  • Limit the number of people that can be in confined communal spaces (like conference rooms) at one time to maintain social distancing.

  • Put physical barriers between desks, such as clear plastic sneeze guards.


A COVID-safe workplace may look remarkably different from your current setup. Learn more with our infographic: “The Anatomy of a Future Workspace.”

Implementing and maintaining these procedures will require a consistent coordinated effort between HR leaders, officer managers, people managers, and executive leadership. Policies should also be communicated to employees multiple times, through different channels (email, meetings, workplace posters and signage), to reinforce expectations.

What do I do if a worker tests positive for COVID-19?

Though most HR leaders say they have a plan if a COVID-19 outbreak happens in their workplace, that’s not true for everyone. One in five (20%) told us they don’t have a plan yet, while 8% weren’t sure if their organization has a plan or not.


Simply put, it’s vital that you have a plan that you can implement quickly when a worker tests positive for COVID-19, in order to prevent further infection.

We’ve put together this short checklist based on guidance from the CDC and the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM). Follow these steps every time an employee notifies you that they’ve tested positive for COVID-19:


The CDC recommends that employers do not require a sick employee to provide a negative COVID-19 test result or healthcare provider’s note to return to work. Speaking of testing…

A quick note on testing 

If your employees are enrolled in a health insurance plan, the plan must pick up 100% of the cost of coronavirus testing, including any testing that is done out of network. If you don’t offer health insurance, compile a list of locations in your area where employees can get free or reduced-cost tests.

Some companies have considered taking the extra precaution of proactively testing their entire workforce for COVID-19 on a regular basis. Not only can this be prohibitively expensive (this kind of testing is not covered by providers so small businesses are looking at a minimum of $2,000 per round of testing), but the frequency of testing and speed of results that would be required to lower your risk aren’t realistic. Avoid this.

The CDC also recommends employers avoid testing employees for COVID-19 antibodies, as these tests may not find antibodies in someone with a current SARS-CoV-2 infection.

When it comes to contact tracing, HR leaders have a number of options to track this kind of information for their workforce. What we found from our survey is that most (61%) are relying on HR software to manage this process, with one-third using manual methods such as spreadsheets or paper files.


In light of the pandemic, a handful of HR software vendors have added contact tracing features to their systems to make this process easier for users. If you don’t have a system with contact tracing features, you can create a custom form or add contact tracing notes (date, who they’ve been in contact with, etc.) to an employee’s profile as a workaround.


Employee contact tracing in Kronos Workforce Central (Source)

All of these ideas may sound good in theory, but what does it look like in practice? It looks something like Phone2Action.

Case study: Phone2Action

Shelli Holland is the head of HR at Phone2Action, a public affairs and digital advocacy software platform based out of Washington, D.C. Before the pandemic, only 10 of Phone2Action’s 92 employees were working remotely full time.


Shelli Holland

Head of HR, Phone2Action

“Unlike other workplaces where they might have two days a week where someone works remotely, we are very much an in-office culture.”

When Phone2Action learned that a few employees were potentially exposed to the virus at an industry event in late February, the company didn’t wait to act. Though thankfully no one became ill, the decision was made in early March to go fully remote—prior to any shutdown mandates.

Equipped with work-issued laptops, a stipend to spruce up their home office, and a more accommodating schedule so workers could take care of family needs, the remote work situation was going well. But it wasn’t long until workers were asking when they could return to the office.

“Some employees were inquiring about when they could return to the office, just from a workplace productivity perspective,” Holland says. “We wanted to be flexible enough that if someone felt like they would be more productive in the office, to give them that opportunity.”

That’s when Shelli, working with the executive team and the office manager, came up with Phone2Action’s return-to-work strategy:

  • Get employee feedback. Using a Google form, they asked employees if they wanted to return to the office, and any shift preferences they had for doing so. No one was required to come in.

  • Capacity plan. Referencing CDC guidelines and the dimensions of their office space, they determined the maximum number of employees that could be in the office at any one time to maintain social distancing. They created a sign-up sheet so they could know who and how many employees would come in every day.

  • Stock up on safety equipment and services. Shelli and the office manager purchased masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, disinfectants, and infrared thermometers. She also contracted a cleaning crew to disinfect the office every day.

  • Post signage. Signage around the office tells employees which direction to walk down hallways, how to wash their hands, how to disinfect desks, where they can sit, and the max number of people allowed in places such as conference rooms and bathrooms.

  • Implement office safety policies. Any employees coming in must check their temperature before arriving, and they must wear a mask while in the office. Most collaboration still takes place on platforms such as Zoom and Slack. Lastly, workers are told to stay home if they have any symptoms or have potentially been exposed to the virus.

  • Reassess on a monthly basis. Shelli and her team are closely monitoring the COVID-19 situation in their area. If signs are good and regulations allow, they’ll open up the office to more employees if they want to come in. If it worsens or a worker tests positive, they’re prepared to go fully remote again.

Maximum occupancy sign for a conference room at Phone2Action


Station for workers to grab masks, gloves, and disinfectant at Phone2Action.


Reminder to disinfect work area at Phone2Action.


A floor sign at Phone2Action to direct traffic and maintain social distancing.


Phone2Action uses signs and other safety guards to keep workers safe from COVID-19.

The Phone2Action office officially reopened on August 3, with 15% of Phone2Action employees electing to return. More than a month in, the results (or lack thereof) speak for themselves: No employees who have worked in the office have tested positive for COVID-19.

With school back in session, Shelli anticipates more employees will opt to come in throughout the rest of the year. As that happens, they’re prepared.

“Once we have a larger number of employees who are looking to come back into the office, we have reviewed software that we will purchase for contact tracing,” Holland says.

The most important question of all

We’ve answered a lot of questions here, and yet it kind of feels like we’ve barely scratched the surface, doesn’t it?

The reality is everything from how we collaborate to what we do with the office kitchen has been upended by this pandemic, and HR leaders will need to be flexible and adaptable with their return-to-work strategies to encompass all of these nitty-gritty details.

But there’s one critical question we haven’t gotten to yet: Why? If you’re going to require workers to come back to an office setting in the middle of a pandemic, you need a good reason for doing so.

“It’s really about what the employees will respond to, what the culture is of that organization, and what makes the most sense,” Baumgardner says. “Are you forcing people into an office just because that’s the way it was before? Or are you bringing people in because it benefits the organization in some way?”

Keep employee safety and sentiment top of mind, and good results will follow.

Want more like this?

  • We’ve created a knowledge hub with all of our articles and research about adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic: “Reimagining Your Business in a New, Online World.” Check it out if you found this report helpful.

  • We also have a video interview series going on where our general manager, Blake Clark, talks to industry experts about how small businesses can not only survive but thrive during this difficult time. You can find all of the episodes here.

  • For all of the latest HR research, best practices, and trends, head to our blog.


Software Advice COVID-19 HR Impact Survey 2020 Methodology

The Software Advice COVID-19 HR Impact Survey was conducted in August 2020. We surveyed 123 HR “leaders,” defined as CHROs, HR vice presidents, HR directors, HR managers, or any other role with HR leadership responsibilities at U.S.-based businesses. We worded the questions to ensure that each respondent fully understood the meaning and the topic at hand.

Software Advice COVID-19 Employee Impact Survey 2020 Methodology

The Software Advice COVID-19 Employee Impact Survey was conducted in May 2020. We surveyed 376 full- and part-time employees at U.S.-based businesses. We worded the questions to ensure that each respondent fully understood the meaning and the topic at hand.

Note: The applications selected in this article are examples to show a feature in context and are not intended as endorsements or recommendations. They have been obtained from sources believed to be reliable at the time of publication.