Return-to-Workplace Employer Guide

As employers the world over look to return employees to the worksite, there are dozens of steps to consider to mitigate the potential risk of COVID-19 infection and support the overall well-being of the workforce.


June 08, 2020

Employers should be prepared to address several aspects of a safe return to work strategy, including decisions on who should return to work and when, procurement of personal protective equipment, worksite readiness, and how to communicate these changes to employees and their families.

As companies seek to return to the workplace and bring additional employees back for those that never closed, providing a safe and healthy environment is their primary focus.  To support employers navigating myriad challenges regarding how and when to return to workplace amid the global pandemic, Business Group on Health has produced this Return-to-Workplace (RTW) Employer Guide. This resource has been informed by an RTW Working Group assembled by the Business Group, which includes some of the most progressive global employers, health industry partners, testing companies and researchers. The Working Group meets regularly to discuss employer approaches, challenges and opportunities to execute responsible RTW strategies across industries, geographies, employee responsibilities and other factors. This group will continue to inform the Business Group’s guidance to large employers as circumstances regarding COVID-19 responses change quickly.

Employers’ response to the pandemic, including their return-to -workplace approach, is a multipronged strategy that is applied at an enterprise-wide level and then tailored as needed for local variability. Forming cross-functional teams, employers are developing plans, establishing new processes and implementing measures to keep employees as safe as possible. This guide focuses on 5 core aspects of any RTW strategy:

Who Should Return to the Workplace and When?

The phrase “return to work” can be misleading.  For those in essential roles, such as certain manufacturing jobs, critical personnel have continued to come to the workplace to perform their duties.  For others, work has continued uninterrupted, albeit differently, through teleworking.  As the pandemic evolves, companies are deciding when their workforce can return to the workplace.  Adopting a phased approach, most companies are bringing employees back in stages. To determine who is first to return, many companies identify essential employees, as well as those who have been unable to work from home.  Those who can perform their duties remotely are likely to continue to telework until the pandemic is under control and the risk of infection and spread is reduced.  School closures and the needs of caretakers and vulnerable populations may also need to be considered.

Entry Screening Requirements

Temperature checks and symptom checkers are common procedures.  How they are implemented is each company’s decision.  Employers have various approaches to the methodology for data collection, as well as which guidelines they will enforce to allow entry. In addition to these considerations, clear processes must be defined when an employee is identified as ineligible for entry.  It is also important to acknowledge the limitations of these processes.  Even with rigorous implementation, temperature checks and symptom checker assessments do not eliminate risk of infection.


There are many challenges and considerations for employers to consider with regard to testing.  For many companies, the approach has been to refer symptomatic employees to the health system for testing.  For companies considering a more active role in facilitating employee testing, they are deciding who to test, which type of test to use and how often to test.

When an employer becomes aware that an employee has tested positive, they need to clearly define follow-up actions.  These include notifying the employee to self-isolate at home, contact tracing for your workforce to notify any other employees who may have been exposed, and stringent adherence to the privacy of all involved so that no personal identifying information is disclosed.

Workplace Readiness: PPE, Physical Distancing, Elevators, Common Rooms and More

Preparing the workplace setting is one of the most important components of a company’s RTW plan. This includes specifics about how to implement physical distancing, changing workstation configuration, closing certain common rooms, installation of certain barriers, requiring or providing necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), creating new elevator etiquette, modifying doors to make them touch-free, evaluating ventilation, installing hand sanitizing stations, and implementing enhanced cleaning protocols.

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Employers have quickly developed and adjusted existing communication processes to generate accurate, timely and consistent messaging related to the pandemic. Often developed at an organization-wide level and then updated to account for local variables, cross-functional teams evaluate the communication strategy regularly. The team must make decisions on what content will be included, the frequency of communications and modes of disseminating materials (such as posters, emails, intranet site updates, home mailings, FAQs).  Staying fact-based and providing current information on the organization’s processes and requirements ensures that the workforce is fully informed of expectations and builds confidence in the company’s response.

In addition to the five key components outlined in this RTW guide, employers also need to continue to review and address other employee well-being needs.  While always important, during these unprecedented times, the demand for programs to address access to quality health care, physical activity, mental health support, financial well-being, social connectedness, leave policies, teleworking and flexible work arrangements are increasingly relevant.  Business Group on Health has an extensive portfolio of resources covering these related topics. 

It is important to note that no level of employer mitigation will be able to eliminate the risk of exposure to the virus.  During an infectious disease pandemic, mitigation needs to be addressed in coordination with community efforts and adopting best public heath practices.  While employer actions cannot replace a public health response, employers play an important part in the larger community health response, and as always, are responsible for undertaking reasonable efforts to provide a safe workplace for their employees.

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