Bringing employees back to work after a break can be a challenging task and needs to be handled with care. This is even more relevant now, as COVID-19 restrictions across the world ease out and offices are reopening for full-time work.
Whether you're a large enterprise or a small business, a streamlined return-to-work process is now a necessity. It fixes the current challenge of bringing workers back to the office after the prolonged pandemic, and prepares you for other situations such as bringing specific employees back after an injury or illness.
In this article, we'll discuss how to manage and support your employees' return to work with a streamlined process. We'll also touch on the specific challenges presented by the pandemic and how to manage the return to full-time office work after working remotely.
Why Employees Take Extended Time Off
While this decade’s biggest break from work will be because of the pandemic, there are several more reasons why an employee may take a long leave of absence or time off full-time office work. Some of these include:
- Employee health or medical issues
- Workplace or other injuries
- Childcare or maternity leave
- Personal leave or sabbatical
- Contracting a disease that requires employees to quarantine (like coronavirus)
- Natural or other disasters that may damage the workplace and thus prevent work as the office is being rebuilt
If an employee is planning a leave of absence, be sure you have that process dialed in with this guide to streamlining your leave of absence process.
What a Return-to-Work Program Is (and Why You Need One)
A digitized return-to-work (RTW) process facilitates an employee's return to the workplace in the quickest and safest way possible. If the break from work is due to an injury, illness, or disability, it enables the employer to manage the issue effectively while still allowing the employees to work.
An effective return-to-work program allows employees to resume working in a way that is appropriate to their current condition while also contributing productively to the organization. It encompasses more than the physical nature of an ill or injured worker's condition — it also includes mental health concerns, workplace dynamics, and general employee well-being.
Automated, streamlined return-to-work programs offer financial and other benefits to businesses:
- They help you demonstrate a caring work culture to your employees
- They improve morale, leading to a more positive work environment
- By potentially enabling employees to return to work faster, they help improve productivity
- They help employees feel valued and connected to the company, thus improving employee retention and saving on recruitment and training costs for new employees
- They reduce workers' compensation costs and similar costs associated with employee disability or medical insurance
- They help protect the organization from expensive lawsuits
- They also help with compliance with various regulations such as the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (for federal contractors) and the American Disability Act (ADA)
Finally, a return-to-work process that brings an employee back quickly and without hassle enables the employees to earn an income and preserve their skills, even if they work on a reduced capacity for a while.
Creating an Effective Return-to-Work Process
The COVID-19 pandemic was sudden and unexpected. Accidents and employee injuries are often just as unexpected. So, the first part of creating an effective return-to-work program is to prepare for such events well in advance.
This can be done by ensuring that you have an up-to-date record of every position in your organization, complete with job descriptions and day-to-day tasks. If an employee's absence in any position would disrupt business operations, you can try to minimize the disruption by training other members of the team to take over the tasks.
To account for disasters and pandemics, a disaster management plan and provisions for remote work are essential. The ability to work remotely may also help individual employees who took an extended leave return to work faster.
Some essential elements of a return-to-work program include:
- A detailed document outlining the process
- Written communication to the returning employee regarding the process and any expectations related to new initiatives, updated company policies, or new job responsibilities
- Compliance with legal requirements
- An optimal balance between business needs and current restrictions of the employee (in case of ill or injured workers) or workplace (in case of a disaster or pandemic)
- Communication with the organization's human resources team related to relevant documentation and requirements
Other than these general requirements, it might be a good idea to have more than one return-to-work program in place as the specifics may differ depending on whether the break from full-time work is due to an employee injury or a company-wide disaster.
Return to Work After a Disaster or Pandemic
Since something large-scale like a natural disaster would impact your entire organization or even a whole city or country simultaneously, you may have to temporarily shut down normal operations based on the scale of the problem.
With disasters such as a storm or a minor earthquake, the closure may be short-term, lasting a few days to months. But with large-scale events like the coronavirus pandemic, the impact may last longer.
Here's how to bring your employees back to work after such incidents.
Since pandemics impact entire cities, countries, or the world, the most important things to consider are employee safety and government regulations. A flexible plan with the agility to switch back to remote work at short notice may also be important in case of new variants of the disease causing spontaneous changes in regulations.
So, follow these guidelines to create an effective return-to-work program:
- Leave room for flexibility, with backup plans to accommodate any unexpected changes to federal, state, and local regulations
- Give employees prior notice if they are expected to return to work in the office, and keep the remote work option open for jobs that can be carried out from home
- Implement strict safety guidelines (for example, mandatory mask-wearing, social distancing, etc.) to ensure the safety of all your employees
- Incorporate the latest protocols specified by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) into your safety procedures
- Figure out alternative arrangements for employees at a high risk for developing the illness, as classified by the CDC
- Mandate regular testing and self-monitoring to prevent an epidemic inside the workplace
- Inform employees of any government benefits they may receive if they meet eligibility criteria (for example, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act or FFCRA allows for emergency paid sick leave)
- Make it easy for employees to communicate any personal issues or concerns with the management, and respond with prompt action
- Prepare your office for employees with adequate stock of hygiene supplies, signage reminding employees about your safety measures, changes to your office layout to accommodate social distancing (if necessary), and any other measures to comply with legal requirements
- Keep protocols in place that you’ll use if an employee contracts the disease (like contact tracing and quarantine protocols for infected employees)
In addition to these, keep in mind that your employees are your priority in such a situation. Offer all possible resources to help them cope with the difficult situation, such as mental health and well-being support, paid leaves, and other benefits to support them through the pandemic.
Bringing employees back after a disaster is arguably less complicated than returning to work during (or after) a pandemic. Your return-to-work process in this situation would have to include:
- A clear and detailed guidelines document, to be communicated to employees when it is safe to return
- A notification regarding the date by which your employees should come back to work on-site
- A simple way for employees to communicate with the management if they cannot return by the designated date or need specific provisions
- Make provisions to take care of employees who have been personally affected by the disaster through conversations with a manager, therapy sessions for their mental health, and special accommodations in case of physical injury
Bringing Employees Back After Injury or Illness
The return-to-work process for an individual employee with an illness, injury, or disability is vastly different from the process to reopen an office after a pandemic or disaster. The program needs to be flexible and agile enough to be personally tailored to the specific employee and their job, but there should also be guidelines in place so that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time.
Here's what you need to keep in mind:
- The employee's primary care physician decides when they can return to work, and to what extent they can perform their duties at any given time.
- If they are unable to return to the same job, it is your obligation as their employer to either temporarily (in case of a treatable injury) or permanently (in case of a disability) place them in a different role that matches their abilities.
- If the employee's duties are modified, it's best to make the offer to the injured worker in writing with the necessary release forms filled in by the doctor.
- Contact your employee when they are about to come back to plan the specifics of their return to work. Ask them what provisions and support they would need and create a personalized plan based on their requirements. This would include any physical adjustments as well as mental health support and anything else they might require to make their transition back to your office safe, healthy, and smooth.
- Once the employee returns, conduct a meeting to check in with them regarding their health and abilities. It is also a good idea to go over the adjustments and support plans before they start working and make sure the plan still suits their needs.
- Stay in touch with the employee using regular check-ins, both before and after they return. This helps them avoid feelings of isolation at work, and shows them that you are concerned about their welfare.
- Make sure your return-to-work program complies with all the relevant legal requirements for your state, including regulations from the ADA, Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), plus the workers' compensation regulations for your state.
Use Automation to Streamline Your Return-to-Work Process
In a nutshell, an effective return-to-work program is centered around the safety and well-being of your employees. It is also agile enough that it can be adapted according to the requirements of your employees and the situation at hand.
Such agility can be complex to manage in a manual environment, with paper documents or forms for every eventuality and inefficient communication with employees through a variety of platforms.
The best way to keep your process smooth yet flexible is to use Pulpstream's Return to Work solution. With automated communication across your teams, flexible digital workflows, and integrations for everything from contracts to case management, bringing an individual employee or an entire office back to work is an easy task.
Want to see how Pulpstream's solution can dramatically increase productivity and reduce costs? Book a free demo now!