Returning to Work During Covid-19? Here’s How to Tell Your Employees

Not all of us are ready for the new normal. Find out how you can communicate your back to work guidelines to your employees without sounding insensitive.

Earlier last month, UK Prime Minister Borris Johnson urged the country to take the first step towards normalcy amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. Speaking from Downing Street, the prime minister actively encouraged the people to return to work — dropping the message “Stay at home” and replacing it with a new slogan, “Stay alert.”

Despite stressing that it’s not yet time to end the lockdown, Johnson’s remarks were condemned as being divisive and confusing. It was met by a chorus of disapproval from the people as well as leaders of other nations like Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland.

“I’m not ready for that.”

Almost immediately after this speech, 57-year old Milton Keynes was messaged by his boss to get back to work the next morning.

 “I said I’m definitely not ready for that. They only announced it at 7 pm last night and I was messaged by my work as soon as it finished saying to come back tomorrow.”

Keynes work as an electrician, fitting up to four social homes a day. Although his first job was to fit an empty home, you can clearly sense that he’s not ready to go out, yet.

“My first job tomorrow is in an empty one but I don’t know what the future holds after that.”

“It’s too soon.”

Andrew, who works in a joinery firm, share the same sentiments with Keynes.

“I wasn’t happy to go back as I feel it’s way too soon. But I felt like I should, to keep the company going. I don’t want to be unemployed in what I suspect will be a phenomenal global recession.”

While it’s important to go back to work as soon as possible to jumpstart the economy, employee safety is still paramount.

7 Tips for Communicating Back to Work Guidelines with Employees

1️⃣ There’s no such thing as over-communication

During a health crisis, there’s no such thing as over-communication. Keep your employees in the loop of what’s happening around the company. And don’t forget to include a reminder or two about staying safe throughout this pandemic.

Some employees may feel overwhelmed. To avoid this, make sure your communications are:

  • Based on facts – before sending anything in the company intranet, make sure you’ve counterchecked the information against reputable sources.
  • Insightful and provides guidance – given the facts you’ve just shared to them, how is the company responding? How will the trends influence what we do next? There’s a lot of uncertainties around. Employees will surely appreciate an update that gives them some sense of direction.
  • Inspiring and compassionate – as human beings, we want to feel hopeful. We want to know that we will get through this as long as we continue to care for each other. Instead of the standard corporate tin can approach, consider sharing an inspiring message with your employees during this Covid-19 crisis. We all need it!  

2️⃣ Be clear, timely, and consistent

If there is something, we can criticise from Prime Minister Johnson’s remarks, it’s that it is confusing. That’s the last thing you want from your employee communications. Be clear and to the point in your message.

Consistency is also key. Some of the great companies around the globe are giving their employees regular updates about the virus and how it’s affecting their business or industry. By being consistent, you show to your employees that you care and that they still belong despite not being able to go to work for some time.

3️⃣ Use all communication channels available to you

Use all communication channels (i.e. email, video, social media, text message, call, etc.) in communicating your return to work guidelines to your employees. Consider your workforce demographics. There’s might a certain group of workers who are too old to know what Zoom is.

Make use of your leaders and managers. Ask them to send out their own communications reinforcing the guidelines and direction you’ve established. This shows your employees that the company leadership is working hand in hand for the benefit of everybody.

4️⃣ Use video

Video is a good way to add a personal touch in communicating your return to work guidelines. Ideally, this update should be done by a senior member of the company. This should be followed up by messages from managers reaffirming the information.

Take a look at this example on how Tracie Sponenberg, Chief People Officer of the Granite Group, her HR team, and senior leaders communicate effectively and with transparency during this pandemic.

5️⃣ Reassure your employees

Dealing with Covid-19 is extremely challenging. Many employees are fearful and anxious about contracting the virus and bringing it home to their loved ones. Some are also afraid of losing pay for time off and not being able to pay the bills — or worse, put food on the table.

In communicating your returning to work guidelines, let employees know what measures or plans you put in place to keep them safe at work. Stay on top of things.

This is also the best time to remind your employees of any available benefits and employee assistance programs you have put in place for their wellbeing. This can range from free over the phone counselling sessions and telehealth to flu shots, paid leaves, and cash assistance.

6️⃣ Show compassion

Your communications should reflect that you are empathizing and listening to your employees. Let your employees know that their concerns are normal, given our current situation, and that the management is willing to listen and address their issues, where possible. Give them several channels where they can express their concerns (i.e. through their manager, HR, a safety committee, etc.).  

Most of the time, employees just need to feel heard and not put off by the corporate policy language.

7️⃣ Give your employees the flexibility

Not all of your employees’ requests can be honoured. Some may not even go back to work despite your reassurance. Some may request to continue working at home in fear of contracting the virus outside. Know that these concerns are legitimate. In communicating your back to work guideline, include some degree of flexibility. An employer’s willingness to help employees can go a long way.

7 Things to Include in Your Return to Work Memo

Aside from the usual message from the owner, use the return to work memo as a place to lay out your plans and procedures to keep the workplace safe. Below are some things you need to include in the memo:

1. If you are sick, stay at home

People tend to go to work even though they feel sick. This dedication is admirable but we’re not just talking about a regular headache here. Communicable diseases like Covid-19 can put everybody in your workplace at risk. In your memo, emphasize that when employees have:

  • Fever
  • Dry cough
  • Body aches
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath

they should stay at home and monitor their symptoms. Coronavirus symptoms usually appear within 14 days of infection.

Employees working with the public should wear a mask. Businesses usually have their own supply chains for masks. If your company can’t provide masks, point your employees to online tutorials so they can make their own out of common household items.

2. Wear a mask

Employees working in cubicles should also wear a mask when they are outside their office to reduce their risks of transmitting or catching Covid-19 from others.

3. Monitor temperature

Monitoring employee temperatures in the workplace is a good way to prevent or slow down the spread of the virus in your office. Limit employee entry and exit points and check their temperatures before they enter. Employees showing temperatures of more than 37.8 degrees Celsius should be sent home.

4. Encourage employees to email more

As much as possible, discourage face to face communication among your employees. Instead, encourage them to communicate with their colleagues through text, email, or message.

5. Keep the distance

Reiterate to your employees the importance of keeping at least a 2-metre distance from their fellow workers. While it’s not a guarantee, social distancing is a good way to reduce the risks of catching Covid-19 in the workplace. Avoid any form of gatherings and make sure you put measures around the workplace to enforce this.

6. Keeping surfaces clean

Keep surfaces and common areas in your workplace clean and disinfected (i.e. doors, restrooms, handrails, etc.). Ask your employees to do the same with their individual work stations.

7. Shut down common areas

Another way to limit the spread of coronavirus is to shut down common areas where employees usually congregate such as the lobby and cafeteria. You can also encourage employees to take their lunch or breaks at their desk. If this is not possible, consider staggering lunch/break times to limit the number of employees in these common areas.

Consider putting office refrigerators, coffee machines, and vending machines off-limits as well. Encourage your employees to bring foods and beverages from home.


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Written By

Lenmark Anthony Baltazar

I have been living a life of HR for as long as I can remember. My experiences helped me realize that true happiness comes from being a blessing to the lives of others. I hope my skills and talents will be a blessing to you as well.