Developing a Return to Work Strategy

Liz Barrett, Senior HR Executive, is currently working as Managing Director, Integration at the London Stock Exchange Group and is one of Alium Partners long standing and key contacts. She gives us her insight into the process of bringing staff back to the workplace and the factors that need to be considered.

This paper sets out early thinking about bringing staff back into the office after lockdowns begin to ease.  There are seven principles to consider: 

  • A multi-disciplinary approach.
  • A balance between business requirements and employee safety and wellbeing.
  • A global approach, with local flexibility and execution.  
  • Getting back to ‘normal’ will be a protracted process.
  • Managers are critical.
  • The role of the employee will include social responsibility.
  • Communication will be vital.

Post lockdown, organisations are unlikely to return to the previous ways of working and will need to make significant changes in multiple areas including property, working practices, culture, HR policies and approaches, the role of the manager and the employee.  Early consideration of this will be beneficial, as will be learning lessons from the companies in countries and sectors which come out of lockdown first.


Many companies (those in business sectors which remain viable) have spent the last couple of months working through the complexities of furloughing staff and developing their remote working strategy to make sure they can still function, at least at a basic level, and that employees are supported in the best way under the circumstances.

After the challenges of remote working and managing employee safety and wellbeing through the last few weeks, companies are now starting tentatively to think about what comes next: how can employees be brought back into the office when lockdowns start to be eased and it is feasible to do so.

The complexity becomes immediately apparent.  How do you manage social distancing in an open plan office?  How do you deal with employees who are required in the office but don’t want to return?  How do you balance business need versus the requirement to keep employees safe and healthy, both physically and psychologically?

At this early stage, seven principles are emerging:

  • A multi-disciplinary approach.
  • A balance between business requirements and employee safety and wellbeing.
  • A global approach, with local flexibility and execution.  Adherence to government advice on a country by country basis is paramount, as is being guided by each country’s lockdown exit strategy.
  • Getting back to ‘normal’ will be a protracted process – bringing all employees back into the office at the same time is neither feasible nor advisable: bringing people back in small cohorts, which are carefully monitored seems sensible.  Organisations must be prepared to retrench and move back to remote working if early cohorts have problems.
  • Managers are critical.
  • The role of the employee will include social responsibility.
  • Communication will be vital.

As an upside, there is also an opportunity to develop new ways of working as a result of this experience which could provide better work life balance and reduce costs (e.g. property and travel).


Return to work is a multi-disciplinary exercise (at a minimum, project teams should include risk, property, HR, communications and technology professionals).

It is easy to think of this in silos, as an HR exercise or a property issue, but there is a need for an integrated approach, e.g. property issues include:

    1. Social distancing (both desks and meeting rooms)
    2. Cleaning schedules/hygiene
    3. Provision of hand sanitizer/masks
    4. Availability of car/bike parking
    5. Strategy for other tenants in the building
    6. Provision of other facilities (e.g. food service).

These overlap with HR, particularly Employee Relations and employee and management training, which need to do the following:

  • Review policies, procedures, employment risk for appropriateness (e.g. absence policy).
  • Provide additional policies and procedures (e.g. return to work protocols, refusal to return to work).
  • Run colleague education and support sessions (understand health safeguards in the workplace, personal responsibility for health and hygiene, working etiquette in the office).
  • Run manager education and support sessions.

Managing the business is important, but many organisations are currently working quite successfully remotely at the moment.  Ensuring people are safe, but also that they feel safe, will be critical.


To provide a consistent standard of approach and treatment of employees, an overall project plan, policies and procedures should be developed.  However, different countries are in different stages of dealing with the virus and have differing government advice, and resource availability varies (e.g. testing).  Globally, countries have different proposed paths out of lockdown. It is advisable for different countries or cities to adopt a template approach where they can flex to their own local conditions but which will also give a level of consistency.  It also means that lessons learnt in countries which go early can be applied to later ones.


Getting back to ‘normal’ will be a protracted process; bringing all staff back into the office at the same time is unlikely to be feasible or desirable: it would seem sensible to bring people back in cohorts in order to be able to:

  • Manage the property issues (e.g. social distancing).
  • Monitor the staff who do return (health, morale, level of comfort with office working) and adapt strategy if something is not working.

Very careful monitoring cohorts of returners in terms of their physical health and mental wellbeing, identifying and responding to their issues very quickly will be necessary, and will allow changes in approach to be made in good time.

It will be important to stress that this is likely to be a protracted process, and that the organisation may need to retrench/adjust the strategy on the basis of what happens with early cohorts and in individual countries.


Managers across the world are currently adjusting to remote management and many organisations have worked up a curriculum of training support (both e-learning and VC based) on:

  • Managing self, managing people, maintaining community.
  • Managing performance whilst team is remote – importance of performance management, metrics, objective setting, clear messaging around delivery of objectives.

Further training will need to be provided to managers to support them as they manage the return to work.  Selection for returning cohorts will be a multi-faceted decision based on role criticality and the ability of that role to be done remotely, as well as assessment of the individual employee’s circumstances to assess their fitness to return to work.

Organisations are generally good at determining who their key employees are and have already done this before or through the remote working phase.  However, determining which employees’ roles would be significantly more productive if they were physically in the office is a different matter.  Organisations which have managed fairly successfully through the lockdown period may be considering whether this list of roles that are better performed in the office is far smaller than initially thought.  

Managers are best positioning to think this through and their input will be required to generate a prioritised list of employees for the first, second and subsequent cohorts of returners.

A unique feature of this pandemic, however, is that we also need to consider the ‘fitness’ of the employee to return to work.  Even if the individual’s role is deemed to be critical and their presence in the office would be beneficial, potential returners need to be assessed on a number of criteria, including the following:

    1. Criticality of role
    2. Ability to work remotely
    3. Commuting (public transport, access to a car)
    4. Underlying health conditions
    5. Personal factors (e.g. childcare, elderly parents)
    6. Ability to work remotely
    7. Exposure to virus/test
    8. Personal resilience/personal preference.

The managers, again, are best positioned to determine this, but will need help.  A diagnostic that managers can use to assess their staff for return to work will be a key deliverable.  


The pandemic has indicated that a culture change is required, to get employees to take social responsibility to make sure they are healthy, practice social distancing, good hygiene etc., for the sake of their colleagues and the wider organisation; a culture where it is heroic to attend work when you are unwell, needs to be replaced by one that says it is the right thing to stay home if you are not well.

A useful tool in this exercise will be an app which will allow employees to check in each morning before they start their journey to work (and will advise them to stay at home if they or anyone around them has symptoms) and later in the day to assess their health, mental wellbeing and give them an opportunity to raise any issues or concerns they have.  This will sensitise people to the need to act in a socially responsible way and will act as an early warning system for issues and concerns.  Data protection and cyber issues will need to be managed, but this is an essential tool to manage the returner cohorts in the best way possible.


Communications, training and education will be the difference between success and failure and Internal Communications will be a key partner in this exercise.

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