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Webinar Recap: Preparing for a Safe and Effective Phased Re-Entry to the Workplace

By: Veronica Horner


For many businesses, re-entering the workplace in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic will be an opportunity to align their strategy with both industry-specific and macroeconomic changes.

As shelter-in-place restrictions lift in the coming months, companies across the United States will be looking to reopen offices and ease employees back into physical workplaces. I recently moderated a webinar on workplace re-entry featuring panelists Swecha Bhavana, Wes McClain, and Bhavik Patel. During the webinar, the panelists detailed some best practices for reopening offices that can help companies navigate uncertainty while prioritizing employees’ and customers’ safety.

Across the board, SEI recommends a phased re-entry planned and executed as a high-priority project. Whether your company should pursue a conservative or relatively aggressive re-entry plan will depend on your location and industry, but in every case, empowering the right project management team and establishing clear communication channels will be key.

In case you missed the webinar, we have compiled an overview of our key recommendations for safe and effective workplace re-entry below:

1. Construct a Re-Entry Task Force

Assembling a task force devoted to planning, monitoring, and managing your re-entry process will be an essential first step in workplace re-entry. Empower this task force to ensure safety, productivity, and compliance. Consider the following steps when assembling your task force:

  • Build cross-business, cross-functional teams. Be sure to include high-performing employees in critical functional areas across your organization.
  • Obtain a clear mandate from executive management. Securing executive buy-in for the scope and reach of your task force will streamline operations as you adopt new processes and increase resilience as scenarios develop.
  • Develop an integrated communication plan. Integrate your task force’s deliverables with your communication plan. Establish channels to incorporate employee feedback and continuously update changes in your plan as scenarios develop.
  • Adhere to rigorous project management principles. As re-entry begins and scenarios change, your task force will need to respond quickly and efficiently. Carefully consider the leadership skills reopening requires, and select seasoned professionals with extensive experience with Agile project management.
  • Include dedicated analytics staff. As workplaces reopen, your company will need to use reliable data analyses to inform its decision-making. As localized COVID-19 infection rates fluctuate and industry trends start to reflect necessary adjustments, looping in dedicated analytics personnel will help your company engage in accurate data-driven decision-making.

2. Build and Align COVID-19 Scenarios

We do not know how the COVID-19 pandemic will develop in the coming weeks, and companies will need an Agile operations model to cope with uncertainty. Since federal and regional government guidelines change regularly, you should build out competing scenarios with data-driven decision triggers in order to prepare for various contingencies. To get started:

  • Identify authoritative sources of information. In addition to aggregating official government guidelines, building scenarios will require data inputs from credentialed medical, epidemiological, and industry sources.
  • Develop “most likely,” “best-case,” and “worst-case” scenarios. To align reopening strategies with government guidelines and industry trends, build out a range of scenarios with clear assumptions and metrics for determining which way the scenario is moving.
  • Design decision triggers for insertion into a pre-phased plan. Decision triggers are cues to move ahead or roll back on a certain phase. For instance, lifted government restrictions on large public gatherings or a sudden spike in infections can be cues that a scenario is changing. Companies should have clear responses to every foreseeable contingency planned out in advance to ensure they are prepared to mitigate problems or move ahead with new phases.

3. Identify Re-Entry Phases and Look for “No Regret” Measures

After building out top-level scenarios, design a phased reopening plan and outline the concrete tactics each phase requires. Some or many of your employees will return to physical workspaces in phases. Define each phase of reopening — whether it involves introducing key personnel to the office or reopening some manufacturing plants — the data-inputs you will require to determine how it is progressing, and plans for tracing and mitigating exposure.

Further, implement “no regret” measures while you design your phased re-entry plan. Certain measures, such as updating company social distancing guidelines or strengthening network security to sustain and enhance remote work, will remain relevant even as circumstances change and industry trends shift.

4. Generate a Phased Plan with Decision Triggers and Rigorous Tactics

Weave together your phased re-entry plan with concrete, on-the-ground tactics in different areas. These will vary depending on the industry, but possible tactical areas will include:

  • Office: Create a safe and comfortable physical place for your employees returning to the office. Develop strategies for sourcing personal protective equipment and implement social distancing guidelines, sanitation measures, and clear protocols for conference room use.
  • Sales: Remember that repening will not mean making a full return to previous operating procedures. Many members of your sales team will likely remain remote, and metrics for sales success will need to be altered.
  • Employee screening: A key part of your phased re-entry plan will include continuous employee screening. Design procedures for dealing with exposure, contact-tracing, and establishing facility re-entry criteria that reflect industry expectations.
  • HR and travel: Companies will need to update HR and travel policies and benefits to reflect new expectations. Employees may be expected to travel less, rely more on virtual client engagement, and disclose their exposure to infected individuals.

As you design concrete tactical measures, sketch out employee and customer journeys to test your assumptions. Account for elements such as employees’ commutes, their interactions with vulnerable populations, and how they interact with company facilities. Mapping out employee journeys will also double as an HR resource and an outline for employee training. Remember that tactics will be prone to changes and reversals as scenarios shift, and their implementation must be integrated with decision triggers.

5. Kick Off Workstreams and Monitor Progress

Ensure your plan includes process alignment between top-level strategies and concrete execution, clear delineations of scenarios and assumptions, and reopening guidelines. To facilitate the successful implementation of your plan, we recommend taking the following steps:

  • Build an all-encompassing final report and tactics grid as the final plan deliverable.
  • Follow up a phased plan with workstreams and schedules, and update workstreams regularly with input from different project leaders and managers.
  • Update key stakeholders and executive management on decisions to ensure smooth change management.
  • Be cognizant of communication channels. Introduce new tools and do not be overly reliant on email.

Charting a Course Forward

Ultimately, we believe that companies’ phased re-entries to the workplace will see the acceleration of certain workplace trends and industry shifts, including adjustments to global supply chain management, a broad-based shift to telework, and widespread migration to the cloud.

For many businesses, re-entry to the workplace will not only represent the continuation of operations, but an opportunity to align strategy with industry-wide and macroeconomic changes and integrate game-changing technologies and process improvements.

Want to dive deeper into best practices for reopening offices in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic? Download webinar panelist Swecha Bhavana’s white paper, “A Guide to Planning a Safe and Effective Re-Entry into a Physical Workspace.”

Veronica Horner


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