Return to Work Plans & The Importance of Employee Surveys

When is the right time to bring employees back to the office, and what’s the best way to go about it? These are the big questions on the minds of business leaders everywhere. There’s pressure to move quickly, but the actions you take will have a lasting impact. The problem is, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. After all, no two organizations are exactly alike.

“Wait until your employees are ready. If employees are unwilling or unable to return to the workplace, don’t force them. Gather data to assess employee sentiment and comfort about returning and monitor employee engagement and comfort once they return. Adjust the reentry plan if needed. Use employee feedback as a trigger for re-exit if employees start to feel unsafe.” Gartner

Steps to Create a Return to Work Plan

Your return to work plan involves more than government compliance or health and safety concerns. It starts with a return to work planning team and a strategy based on employee feedback. In this section, we’ll talk about the steps of creating a return to work plan.

1. Choose a Return to Work Planning Team

First, an effective return to work planning team includes a cross-functional group of employees responsible for developing, implementing, and managing the plan. Hiring an external health advisor or consultant can also offer a third-party perspective and help your organization to navigate challenges and concerns along the way.

Here are a few things to consider when forming a return to work planning team:

  • Select the right team members: Choose committed team players from across all departments who will add value to the group and commit to carrying out the initiative.
  • Assign individual roles: Define responsibilities for the development, transition, and monitoring phases.
  • Communicate clear expectations: Ensure each member understands their roles and responsibilities.
  • Identify areas of concern: Discuss potential challenges so you are prepared to address them in your plan.


2. Build the Return to Work Plan

The next step is to roll up your sleeves and begin building your return to work plan. Start with a return to work pulse survey to capture employee feedback, measure readiness, identify potential challenges, and show employees you are listening to their concerns. You’ll understand what concerns them most and strengthen their commitment to your organization.

Here’s what to consider at this stage:

Determine a return to work timeline and whether a phased approach makes sense.
  • Listen to the employee feedback captured with the return to work pulse survey to gauge readiness and identify potential barriers.
  • Determine how to bring employees back safely, whether at one time, a hybrid approach, or a phased strategy.
  • Discuss how employees and visitors will interact safely and maintain appropriate social distancing.
  • Ensure clear, advanced communication about your timeline and approach.
Evaluate your physical workspace. 
  • Review the office layout and evaluate how to organize and repurpose workspaces for individuals and small group gatherings.
  • Provide clear guidelines for mask protocols and how to share public spaces safely.
  • Assess the need for sanitation stations and additional cleaning for high-contact areas.
Consult government guidance to protect your employees and monitor guidelines.
  • Familiarize the team with OSHA and CDC, state and local guidelines, as well as the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
  • Ensure compliance with ADA and HIPAA guidelines and the required steps when someone tests positive for COVID-19.
Outline employee screenings, precautions, and protocols.
  • Decide if employees will be screened, and if so, how often and by whom.
  • Establish return to work protocols for employees who test positive for COVID-19 and those exposed to someone who tested positive. Discuss with HR how to handle notifying employees who were in contact with a COVID-positive employee.
  • Determine if your organization will provide protective equipment such as masks and hand sanitizer.
  •  Consider how to communicate when an employee tests positive and how you will cover the workload, if necessary.
Plan for potential scenarios, changes, and thresholds.
  • Be aware of changes to regulations, mandates, or local laws that affect the way you do business.
  • Consider how to address a possible workforce reduction due to illness and childcare needs.
  • Create a contingency plan to roll out if your office must return to a remote workforce for an extended time.

 3. Monitor and Iterate Your Return to Work Plan

Lastly, adapt your plan and know how to pivot quickly. This is an integral part of a return to work plan. Expect your plan to be tested and be ready to make adjustments. Use the return to work planning team to:

  • Update or change your return to work plan based on current developments.
  • Communicate additional information or changes to employees.
  • Address any employee concerns and answer questions not already addressed.
  • Measure indicators of success.

How to Know if Your Employees are Ready to Return

The only way to know how your employees are feeling about the return to work is to ask them. Awareness of what they are thinking, how they are feeling, and where there could be potential challenges will help you to avoid hot spots. Plus, letting employees know you value their input will build trust and improve connection.

Before communicating any transition plan, leaders should first gather employee feedback using a return to work pulse survey. These insights provide the data needed to understand employee fears and concerns, guide people-informed decision making, and take confident action.

In addition to putting safety measures in place, it’s essential for employees to feel safe. Using a pulse survey to check-in, get feedback, and hear their concerns is an effective way to capture the information you need to inform your return to work plan.

Why pulse surveys are important and how they differ from an engagement survey

Pulse surveys capture real-time employee feedback that enables you to tackle immediate topics and gain valuable intelligence for mission-critical business issues. But they’re not a replacement for comprehensive employee engagement surveys.

Fewer than ten questions each, these quick-to-launch, fast turnaround back to work questionnaires help C-suite, human resources, operations, and technology leaders to:

  • Target specific topics and inform your return to work plan.
  • Measure employee sentiment, readiness, and confidence levels.
  • Generate actionable, people-centered insights within 48 hours.
  • Minimize hot spots, reduce risk, and accelerate decision making.
  • Gain the trust and confidence of your employees.
  • Ensure your return to work plan stays on track and alerts you when a pivot is needed.

The return to work survey questions to ask right now

How many employees are at higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19? Which employees have the added stress of being a caregiver or struggling with childcare needs? Think of the transition in three phases: planning, communication, and retrospective. Capturing employee feedback on these topics during each stage of your return to work plan will give you the guidance and confidence you need.

Return to Work Planning

Be confident your return to work strategy aligns with employee readiness. These pulse survey statements focus on topics such as productivity and efficiency, excitement and motivation, specific concerns, individual needs, and your employees’ comfort level with returning to the office.

Pulse survey example: “I would be comfortable going back to working at the office soon.”

Return to Work Communication

Ensure employees understand your plans and policies related to the transition back to the workplace. Statements target communication, confidence in the return to work plan, and support for caregivers.

Pulse survey example: “I am confident in the plan to return to working onsite.”

Return to Work Retrospective

After employees have returned to the workplace, gather feedback to learn how employees are adapting. Pulse survey statements to consider include health and safety protocols, clarity of procedures, learnings — and also — celebrations.

Pulse survey example: “I am clear on procedures to follow addressing the risk of COVID-19.”

How to use pulse surveys in your return to work plan

Select a relevant topic and choose your pulse questions. We recommend including no more than 10 in total.

  • Define the audience – this can be teams, locations, or the entire organization.
  • Launch the survey, limiting the window to 48 hours.
  • Review results with key stakeholders.
  • Identify the next steps to take.

 Six pulse survey best practices for your return to work plan

  1. Communicate with employees before each launch. Explain the purpose of the pulse survey and what to expect.
  2. Thank employees for taking the time to complete the survey. Assure them that you value their feedback – when you do, they’ll be more likely to participate again the next time.
  3. Respond quickly to pulse survey results. Pinpoint one or two actions you can take right away. You can make a significant impact more quickly.
  4. Tie the actions you take to the pulse survey results. Whenever possible, let employees know when decisions result from their input.
  5. Ask only questions that you can address right now. Focus on the topics important to your return to work plan and those that benefit from real-time feedback.
  6. Continue to use pulse surveys beyond the return to work transition. Maintain a connection with employees. Use their feedback to guide your decision making and build trust throughout the organization.

Top Workplaces use survey feedback to make people-informed decisions. Ready to find out what’s on the minds of your employees? Start by nominating your organization. 

The July 2021 Top Workplaces National Awards are now live! Go here to see the online, virtual reveal.