Back to Business: Returning to the Office after COVID-19

By: Laura Flanagan, MS, SHRM-SCP

Published: May 19, 2020


As the economy slowly opens, employers are making decisions on how to open their business safely to the public again. They have already made the difficult choices on furloughing employees. If granted the paycheck protection program, the expectation is employers have the financial strength to bring their employees back to work. Realistically businesses will not be at full operations upon opening and will gradually over a period of time ramp back up. As they go about doing this, they should have a system of deciding the best way to bring employees back and it should mirror the same process used to decide to furlough them in the first place. If you used seniority, essential duties or performance as the primary drivers, use the same factor(s) when bringing people back. The importance of this is to create legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for choosing which employees to return to work.


For example, if you used seniority to furlough, use it to bring people back. Of course there are nuances to this depending on the type of business you are in, but the general rule is bring back those that are essential to the ramp up of your business. If you are in the restaurant business you may need to bring your line cooks back before your sommelier even if the sommelier has more seniority than the line cook. If you are in a corporate setting, it is possible that your financial, human resources and sales employees are essential to bring back initially or in waves. If you used essential duties to furlough, then use the same to bring them back.


No matter the type or size of your business, this is a potential opportunity to clean house and shore up your team. Whom do you really want back and whom can you do without? If there are employees who were having performance issues before being furloughed and you were actively having conversation, documenting and have past performance reviews as a paper trail to back up this decision, then you can decide if you want them back in your employ. If on the other hand, you had not been actively addressing their performance issues before the furlough, then you cannot use poor performance as a reason not to reemploy them. Bring them back and then address their weaknesses in performance. Unlike before COVID-19 hit the US, there is now plenty of talent available of employees who are more productive.


Suggested Welcome Back Strategies

When the time comes, it is important to take the proper steps as an employer. This has been an interesting venture in our lives. People may be tentative when returning to work because life will not be the same as it was before. It may not be until a vaccine is available and well distributed. Listed below are a few suggestions of items you could try to make the transition back from furlough to full time a bit more comfortable.

  • Treat the return like onboarding. When bringing furloughed employees back after an extended period away from the workplace, act as if you are onboarding a new employee. This should include a brief retraining and an update on company policies and all the new processes you are using as a business to keep employees and clients safe. This could include proper social distancing protocols, safety processes such as proper disinfecting of the work-space, supplying hand sanitizer, masks or other personal protective equipment needed for carrying out work duties. People may be hesitant to come back to work because there is no cure yet. Any safety precautions employers can put in place will help ease the transition. Demonstrate clearly that health and cleanliness is top of mind.
  • Plan a welcome back celebration. Of course do this social distancing style, in an outdoor space or indoor where the room is large enough to allow 6 feet of space required between individuals. This can be a town hall informational gathering with time to socialize, a team building exercise or a box lunch for everyone.
  • Schedule one-on-one meetings. After you call your furloughed employees back, it is wise to hold one-on-one meetings with their leader to allow them to discuss their feelings. Give them an opportunity to air concerns if they want to. Be ready to answer their questions as transparently as possible. 
  • Offer flexible scheduling arrangements. When employees return from furlough, their personal lives might be hectic and family dynamics changed. Understand it is not easy to return from an extended period of unpaid leave. Provide them with the flexibility to return in a way that is convenient for them and their family to help ease the transition back into the workplace in a way that benefits them and your business.
  • Reinforce company culture. After being gone for some time, employees returning from furlough might feel isolated from the rest of the team or outside of the company culture. Look for opportunities to reinforce company culture and reintegrate returning employees to the larger team.