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Whether working from a newly configured home office or returning to a now socially distant one, navigating the workforce for an employee returning from furlough is sure to feel different.

The most important thing for employers and employees to remember when people start to come back: Be flexible.

“This is an unprecedented time for many people,” said Amber Clayton, the Society for Human Resource Management's Knowledge Center director. “If (employers) could allow flexibility ... they will have a happier employee, someone more committed and loyal.”

Clayton said there’s no state or federal law that dictates how much advance notice employers must give employees before bringing them back to work. But they should keep in mind that everyone’s pandemic situation is different and not everyone will be able to jump back in immediately.

Another thing to keep in mind: If an employer is asking someone to return to a physical workspace, the employee might be hesitant or nervous about coming back.

“I think right now many people are concerned about coming back for fear alone of contracting (the virus), or have underlying medical conditions or a family member with a medical condition,” Clayton said. “When they are concerned or scared, you want to let them know all the things we're doing to make it safe for them.”

Safety is a priority

Employers should figure out what safety measures they plan on taking before reopening, and to clearly communicate those plans to employees, Clayton said.

Those safety measures could include requiring employees to wear masks or gloves in the office, having their temperature taken daily, getting a coronavirus test before returning and extra efforts to ensure a socially distant workplace.

Of the organizations that participated in a recent Society for Human Resource Management survey:

  • 86% are implementing or considering the required use of PPE (masks, gloves, etc.); of these, 80% are providing and paying for the equipment
  • 73% are implementing or considering on-site medical/temperature screenings
  • 81% are limiting the number of on-site workers
  • 75% are staggering employees’ start, stop and break times
  • 78% are reducing the number of on-site customers

Talk it out

What if an employee doesn’t feel safe returning, even with safety measures in place? Clayton said the best thing to do is talk about it.

The employee should let their employer know how they’re feeling, discuss the safety measures the employer has put in place and work together to figure out a reasonable accommodation, she said.

Employers are not required to offer a remote work option for employees who don’t want to return to the office for fear of contracting COVID-19. But Clayton said if an employee has a medical, physical or mental condition that rises to the level of a disability, an employer could be required to provide reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Here’s Clayton’s advice for handling other topics that might come up when discussing an employee’s return to work:

Unemployment benefits. Clayton said the Society for Human Resource Management has heard from some employers that employees don't want to come back because they’re making more money on unemployment.

What people don’t always realize, Clayton said, is that employees can lose their unemployment benefits if they’re offered their job back and don’t take it. The U.S. Department of Labor outlines rules for receiving unemployment insurance on its website.

The coronavirus stimulus bill, which provides an additional $600 weekly federal benefit for people collecting unemployment, ends July 31 for most states — and slightly earlier for others.

Vacation policy. Employers should try their best to honor their vacation policy, even though traditional vacations have mostly been put on hold.

“Just because people have been working from home, there still have been a lot of stresses we've had to encounter,” Clayton said. “We need a breath. Having to be a teacher, parent and everything else is taxing. If employees want to take off for work for personal reasons, try to give them that time off.”

Heather Nolan
Post by Heather Nolan
July 21, 2020
Heather a skilled communicator with expertise in social media and marketing strategy, brand management and journalism. She uses storytelling and audience growth skills to help companies showcase their brand and expand their reach.