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4 steps companies can take to prepare for a return to the office

February 17, 2021, 10:30 PM UTC
Commentary-Safe return and exit to work
CDC guidelines on office reentry are unclear and shifting, so companies need to make their own return-to-work plans, writes Greg Montana.
Luis Alvarez—Digital Vision?Getty Images

When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global health crisis in March 2020, FIS—like so many other Fortune 500 companies—had to move quickly to adapt and enable new ways of working for our 57,000 employees around the world.

Within a matter of weeks, we shifted from about 9% of our global workforce working from home to 95%. But now, after nearly a year of working virtually, many of our workers are yearning for a return to normal. 

With the coronavirus pandemic still raging and vaccination programs only beginning to roll out, returning to normal will be easier said than done. Also, we don’t want our employees to return to the office only to have to send them home again a few weeks later because of a sudden outbreak of COVID-19. 

And what about employees who are thriving at home? Depending on their roles or their locations, they may not need or want to be in the office every weekday.

Whether they are eager to come back or if they prefer to work virtually, our organization has been carefully planning our return to the office and what that may mean for all our employees. Here are some of the guidelines we are following as we prepare for what’s next—guidelines that other organizations can also follow as they prepare for a COVID-free future:

Have clear plans for bringing people back to the office 

Getting people back into the office needs to be systematic and consistent. And that requires a well-thought-out plan.

Early into the pandemic, FIS formed a steering group of internal stakeholders across our risk, HR, IT, legal, communications, and business unit teams to develop our remote-work plan across our global facilities and communicate that plan to our workforce. The group continued to meet regularly throughout the year to implement and update the plan based on the changing nature of the pandemic, and the same group is now leading the charge in developing our return-to-the-office plans. 

This group established four levels of staffing for our global facilities, each representing a different level of restriction on employees in the office. Having dedicated groups like this to manage how many and when employees return to the office will help your company be prepared to act quickly as circumstances change.

Continual use of face coverings will be required at all our facilities where employees will be returning to the office. All of our facilities make use of technology such as thermal scanners to test temperatures and facial recognition to check for mask-wearing. We will also ensure that proper, regularly changed air filters are in place. It’s a good idea to keep such safeguards in place until we have more certain information about the end of pandemic conditions.

Have clear plans for re-exit

Along with having clear guidelines for when and how to bring employees back to the office, it’s essential to have re-exit guidelines in place as well should caseloads spike again. 

That’s what happened recently for FIS in Brazil, where we have approximately 5,000 employees. We were working on a plan to bring back staff to our Brazilian offices in the first quarter of 2021, but then cases spiked again before the holiday season. 

To lessen any potential for a setback, it’s important to reopen in phases; for example, you can slowly move 10% to 15% of people back into the office at a time. This way, it’s easier to pause or reverse if the situation changes again. 

In our early phases of reentry, we will likely solicit volunteers who have expressed a desire to return to the office. Using a phased approach will allow us to obtain real-time feedback from employees on new office procedures and help inform decisions for our broader return-to-office plans.

Be prepared for a more flexible work environment

With the recent advancements in IT infrastructure and tools, as well as the rapid adoption of collaboration tools, many employees of the 2020s will expect more flexibility moving forward. We are using this opportunity to assess what our employees will need in the future, in terms of physical space and digital tools.  

For example, we are creating more flexible and collaborative work environments to enable innovation. This will allow us to continue to improve our employee experience and support our ability to attract, retain, and engage talent. The same likely goes for your business. Leverage your learnings from the pandemic to your advantage.

Be clear and consistent in communications 

In addition to having a clear plan for a return to the office, it’s vital for companies to articulate the details of that plan to employees in a way that everyone understands. 

That’s been challenging given the different guidelines from the WHO, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state and local governments. To sort through the differing messages, FIS set up a tactical intelligence team to review and research all available information and guidelines. In cases where there are different guidelines, we take the more conservative approach. 

As part of our communication efforts, we have created guides to assist our managers in communicating our return-to-office strategy to employees. We also created an app that makes it easy for employees to look up their location and see the latest guidance concerning their office. Our communications will likely encourage our teams to get vaccinated as early as possible. Yours should too.

Additionally, our leaders will need to discuss with their teams what works best—including if in-person or remote work will be better for their productivity.

Further, when it comes to communications, it’s important to use every resource at your disposal, whether inside or outside the company, to keep employees safe and healthy. At FIS, our crisis team has been communicating with and sharing best practices from top public health officials, peers at other companies, and leaders at the Business Roundtable and other industry groups. 

The pandemic has thrown many surprises our way, but by taking a few concrete actions, businesses can be better prepared to adjust to the changing circumstances yet to come.  

Greg Montana is the chief risk officer at FIS.

A previous version of this article included an illustrative example that incorrectly stated that six feet is more than two meters. The passage has been deleted.