Here's what business leaders can do to help employees feel comfortable returning to the office right now, according to labor attorneys and a crisis communication expert

  • States are beginning to reopen, and office spaces are reopening along with them.
  • But there are still a lot of obstacles companies will have to face to bring employees back to work safely. 
  • One of the biggest challenges is how to communicate to employees that they'll be safe as they return to the office. 
  • Business Insider spoke to legal consultants and crisis communications experts on the best ways to reassure employees it's safe to go back to the office. 
  • Every approach is different but all companies should do the safety work beforehand, have leadership set positive examples, and be transparent and flexible with workers. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The widespread shift to remote work in March was only part of the struggle for companies during the pandemic. Now, they have to worry about how to bring workers back, and how to reassure them that they'll be safe doing so.

States are slowly starting to reopen. Companies from IBM to Goldman Sachs are beginning to plot their office reopenings, and JP Morgan Chase had its traders return to the office on September 21. But the risks are still present – in fact, a number of JP Morgan traders tested positive for COVID-19 less than a week after their return to the office. 

It's normal for employees to feel hesitant. After all, they may be dealing with different health risks, caretaking commitments, and anxiety about handling the spread of the coronavirus. According to a survey from consulting firm Korn Ferry, over half of the 1,044 working Americans surveyed are afraid to return to the office due to COVID-19. 

But there are still steps that companies can take to ensure their employees feel comfortable returning to work. Business Insider spoke with legal consultants and crisis communications experts for their best advice on how to reassure employees that it's safe to go back to the office. 

Do the preparation 

It's not enough to pay lip service to staff. For them to feel comfortable returning to the office, companies will need to take all the precautions and planning necessary. 

"The first step isn't just about communication," Kerri Lyon, partner and managing director at communications firm SKDK, told Business Insider. "There should be a lot of work done over the past months on putting together a real strategy for bringing people back safely. You cannot fake this." 

And there are a lot of elements of an effective reopening strategy. For starters, companies will need to look into state and local requirements about reopening capacity, implement social distancing plans, and find a way to cater to individual accommodations. 

Tech company IBM, for example, has taken extensive steps toward minimizing physical contact at its Yorktown Heights, New York campus. Workers have to get pre-approved before they can enter a building, and order their lunch using a specially designed app in order to minimize lines. 

Lead by example

"One of the things that I would recommend is that leaders of an organization get back to work first if they're really committed to bringing people back and want them to feel safe," Lyon said. "Show-and-tell is so important. Leadership starts at the top, and leading by example is the most important thing here." 

That means that leadership can't just sit at home while their staff take on the risk of returning to the office themselves. Instead, leaders should be the first to begin going back into the office. They can also document that process to show employees how the return would look for them, and to reassure them that they won't have to be the first. 

Company leaders might want to consider video streaming their return. They can take their teams on a virtual walk through the office and show them what it's like, as well as how it will look different than it had before the pandemic. 

Be transparent

It's important to keep employees looped in as much as possible ahead of their return to the office. 

"The more open an employer can be about the steps they are taking to keep their employees safe, the more reassured their employees will feel," Sharon Perly Masling, partner and director of workplace culture consulting at the law firm Morgan Lewis, said. 

Companies should keep their teams informed not only on how they're keeping them safe, but also on the obstacles and potential risks that emerge along the way. 

"Another important thing is communicating information to employees about any issues that do come up," said James Boyan, partner at law firm Pashman Stein Walder Hayden P.C. Boyan said that companies should take steps to implement contact tracing, and make it known to teams if someone enters the office and then tests positive. 

Allow for flexibility

The pandemic has affected everyone differently, and employers should let their employees know that they're aware. 

"It's a good idea to let your employees know that requests can be made for accommodations," Boyan said. "You can't make blanket rules; you have to look at each case individually." 

It can also help employees to ease them into more social situations gradually. Take baby steps, Lyon said. For example, you can host a gathering outside with masks and social distancing. 

"You can start to re-engage with your teams in person and get them excited about being together again, but do so in a safe way, showing that you understand what people are going through and can accommodate their needs," she said.

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