Bringing even some employees back to the office after a year and a half, and doing it well, will be a challenge and requires some management. Think of this as “onboarding 2.0.”
The first issue is safety. Even after restrictions are lifted, many employees will be nervous about returning. Exactly how long to wait and how “normal” the situation should be before bringing back employees is a tough judgment call that depends in part on how well we think things are going now.
The big question with respect to safety is whether businesses will require all returning employees to be vaccinated. Most employers said early on that they would not require employees to be vaccinated. Given the politicization of this particular vaccination, that was a smart position to take, even though I believe virtually all employers will require it for employees who return. It is smarter to wait and let societal pressures work to get the vaccination rate up on its own.
As is often the case with new legal topics, the administrative agencies and the courts have said employers cannot tell employees that they can mandate vaccinations. But these agencies and courts have suggested that relevant laws will not prohibit them from doing so. In December 2020, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stated that as long as employers offer reasonable accommodations to those with serious medical or religious reasons for not being vaccinated, federal civil rights laws do not preclude employers from mandating COVID-19 vaccines.
On the other side of the ledger, the Occupational Health and Safety Act requires that employers provide a safe working environment for employees. Consider this problem: If I am particularly at risk from COVID-19, even if I have been vaccinated, is it safe for me to work closely with people who are not vaccinated, and what is the risk to the employer if I do get sick? Such problems begin to limit where the unvaccinated can work. At the same time, another set of laws and ethical concerns prevent employers from identifying who is not vaccinated, although if employers require those not vaccinated to wear masks at work, as it appears that many are planning, it makes identification clearer.
We already experienced a great deal of employee discomfort among essential or on-site workers in trying to learn who had been infected—and when—during the height of the pandemic. Employers are certainly in a bind, as employees have a right to know what kind of exposure they may have had, and other employees certainly have a right to privacy about their medical conditions. The only way around all this is if almost everyone is vaccinated.
In February 2021, a survey of employers found that 48% said they would not mandate vaccines for employees, and 43% said they were still unsure what to do. Seventy-nine percent reported that their concern about mandating vaccines was about employees who would simply refuse to get vaccinated. In this context, which most employers are following, the smart approach is to nudge employees to get vaccinated. Most employers are offering employees PTO to get vaccinated. Some, like Amazon, are offering a bonus, and many more are making the case as to why getting vaccinated is safe and responsible.
In January 2021, the CEO of United Airlines announced the intention of having all its employees be vaccinated as soon as a vaccine became available. He encouraged other employers to follow suit, but none did, and United appeared to waffle a bit on its intentions as it waited to see what everyone else would do. Then in May, Delta followed United’s lead. Other airlines have now announced that they will not hire candidates who are not vaccinated. My employer, the University of Pennsylvania, said it would require all students to be vaccinated upon their return to campus (many universities have suggested a similar policy), and all faculty and staff must be vaccinated as well.
How to make the case for coming back
Bringing employees back will not necessarily be a turnkey transition. Among other things, not everyone who was there a year and a half ago will still be there, remembering that hundreds of thousands of people in the United States died from COVID-19. Some of those coming back to the office likely lost friends and relatives to the pandemic. A year and a half is a long time even in normal situations. Employees have retired or moved on, and in some cases, new employees have joined.
We might expect some initial excitement when we get back to the office and see friends again. But we will not exactly pick up where we left off. Not everyone will be in good spirits, and not everyone will be excited about being back to work. We can think of onboarding 2.0 as having several stages.
1. Explain why you are coming back
The first stage, before anyone returns, is to explain clearly why you are coming back. This is especially important, because the news has given disproportionate attention to stories about permanent remote options at some companies. Employees need an explanation as to why it is important to come back, why it is necessary for the organization. Without this, it is easy for employees who did not want to come back to think that this is capricious or driven by management bias. In that case, the return will not go well.
2. Talk about what the pandemic was like
The second stage is to acknowledge experiences during the pandemic. Spending some structured time in work groups and teams talking about what it was like trying to work from home and what happened to us during the pandemic humanizes the workplace. It is also an opportunity to transition back to work and to talk about what we learned and what we could do differently going forward.
3. Help employees remember what they liked about the office
Other aspects of a return campaign should include highlighting what employees liked about being in the office—perhaps the social connections, or maybe the food—and do more of that, especially at the beginning of the return. The Business Services Group at the University of Pennsylvania is rolling out Business Services: The Reunion Tour 2021 with return-to-work gift bags the first day back and events for returning employees over the first few weeks.
4. Think carefully about when to bring employees back
Some employers, especially in professional services, are allowing employees who are so inclined to begin coming back to the office immediately, assuming that the numbers are small enough not to violate any restrictions. There is an advantage to this, in that employees who are nervous about returning will eventually come back to an office where everyone is already back working smoothly. The risk, though, is that it can then be more difficult to do any serious reentry and re-onboarding to the post-pandemic workplace if we wait until everyone is back.
Other employers have already announced they will ease employees back into the standard workweek, with schedules like starting back in the office on Tuesdays or late starts in the morning. It is not clear what problem this actually addresses, though. There are advantages in making a cleaner break with the old practices, especially if you want employees to act differently in the office going forward.
Excerpted from The Future of the Office: Work from Home, Remote Work, and the Hard Choices We All Face, by Peter Cappelli, copyright 2021. Reprinted by permission of Wharton School Press.
Peter Cappelli is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management at the Wharton School and director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources. Cappelli writes a monthly column on workforce issues for Human Resource Executive and is a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal and the Harvard Business Review. He is the author of The Future of the Office: Work from Home, Remote Work, and the Hard Choices We All Face, on sale now.