Series authors: Mark Hoffman and Milena Maneva


“Does anybody know what DAY it is?” is becoming a common question, with everyday looking and feeling the same.


Back in the 1970s, the band Chicago had a hit song called “Does Anybody Know What Time It Is?”  – similar questions are being asked everyday as we go through this Coronavirus Outbreak (COVID-19).   Another common question is, “What will ‘normal’ look like when this is all over?”

With little exception, it is safe to assume that if you have office space, much of it is sitting empty as of the time of this writing.  The organizations that were fortunate enough to be deemed “essential” have shifted the majority of their workforce to work remotely, from other office locations or recovery sites.  While others, deemed less essential, are longing to reopen and must consider a number of things ahead of the green light. But what will that look like?

Over the coming weeks, you will be able to access a focused Return-to-Office five-part series. Milena and I will give you dozens of things to consider as you plan to reintroduce your staff to the workplace.

This series is intended to prompt you to consider several important factors when building your Return-to-Office plan, with focus on protecting your people and preparing the environment. We will share a sample Return-to-Office employee memo to share with you that lays out the ‘rules of engagement’ so that employees understand how to behave and interact with one another. Finally, we will wrap up the series with a Q&A style interview, where we will cover a series of questions on returning your workforce to the “new normal”.  Let’s get started!

The first thing you need to consider is fundamental, not only to your Return-to-Office planning, but to what your organization’s workplace will look like in the future.  You must decide to what degree your operation needs to return to pre-COVID-19 levels. Before the pandemic, you may have had 95% of your employees in the office on a given day.  Is that your target?  Do you need the workplace to look like it did in 2019?  Or, have you learned that your critical business functions can be sustained with much of your workforce working remotely? Before you begin laying out your Return-to-Office plan, you must decide what the office and workforce will look like in the “new normal”.

The second fundamental question is – how quickly do you need to get there?  The factors of this decision include:

  • How effectively are you managing your critical business functions?
  • Is the current work arrangement sustainable and productive?
  • Which critical functions are struggling?
  • What are the pain points associated with having the team work remotely?
  • Can these pain points be mitigated by returning people to the office (or in some other way)?
  • External factors – what are local authorities saying? New Health and Safety requirements?

You should build your Return-to-Office plan based on how you answered these important questions.


COVID-19 Risk Assessment

Another important factor in how quickly you bring people back to the office is the amount of work that needs to be done in the workspace to establish physical distancing to keep people safe.  We recommend that you conduct a COVID-19 Risk Assessment specific to the exposure of the coronavirus and with the understanding that employers have a responsibility to provide a safe work environment and that employees will have a higher than normal degree of anxiety about coming back to the office.

Among other things, you will want to identify:

  • What are the guidelines issued by the local authorities on social distancing in a workplace?
  • What is my current workplace capacity?
  • How many people can reasonably fit in the workspace while maintaining physical distancing? Review your floorplans and new seating arrangements.
  • How can I make my workplace safe for staff returning?
  • Are we prepared to allow staff to work remotely indefinitely?

Once you have completed your COVID-19 Risk Assessment, immediately begin making the necessary modifications to the workplace.  Coordinate with your building management/landlord and your Facilities team and leverage the materials and signage they are using to help spread the word about hygiene and physical distancing.  If you have not done so already, coordinate your Facilities team to stock up on PPEs, disinfectants, and hand sanitizers.

Build your Return-to-Office strategy based on the sustainability of the current arrangement and the safety of the workspace.  Specifically, how many people do you want to reintroduce to the office at a given time?  How will you monitor the results?  How long will each phase last?

It is important to remember that the more people you introduce into the office, the higher your risk is that people are going to get sick.  If your organization can sustain the current arrangement, a slow and methodical approach would be preferable.  Depending on the size of your team, you may want to consider bringing 20-25% of your staff back at a given time.  Rotate your teams so that everyone is slowly reintroduced to the office.  Be mindful of high-risk employees.

Related: PreparedEx Podcast – The Challenges of Transitioning to Recovery from COVID19 – An Interview with Michael Gladstone

Return-to-Office Protocol

Before you let people through the door, define your screening and return to work protocol.  There is a tricky balance between health and safety and privacy – and you need to tread carefully in this area.  When it comes to employee screening, we recommend that you check with your HR, Legal and Data Privacy teams before implementing any plans.  It would be more ideal to allow employees to self-screen as long as the rules are clearly defined and evenly enforced.  The following examples apply:

  • Strictly enforce that anyone who is sick (for any reason) must stay home and isolate.
  • Employees must disclose any travel and should self-isolate for 14 days after their return.
  • Have employees take their temperature or introduce temperature checking stations before entering the office. Anyone with a fever of 38°c / 100f cannot enter the office.
  • Consider privacy – abstain from naming and shaming those who were tested positive or have symptoms.
  • Anyone who develops symptoms in the office, must leave immediately and isolate
  • Establish rules for wearing face covering/masks and gloves in common areas, as appropriate.

Continue to enforce your protocol for those who are symptomatic or diagnosed with COVID-19, and those who have been exposed to a family member or co-worker with COVID-19.  Employees with COVID-19 related symptoms (fever, cough, sore throat, difficulty breathing) should contact their health-provider and seek to get tested.  Check with public health officials in your area on how to isolate sick or potentially sick employees, but as a rule:

  • If an employee is symptomatic and either tests positive or cannot obtain a test, they will be required to self-isolate for 14 days. Employees must report to their manager and HR.
  • Any employee in the same rotation as the infected person must self-isolate for 14 days and work remotely.
  • Areas where a COVID-19 positive person was known to work may be closed until deep cleaning can be done.

Introduce strict policies for deliveries and visitors – they must follow physical distancing and screening protocols if allowed to enter. Initially you may want to limit visitors, face-to-face meetings, and other gatherings.  Some organizations that are returning to the office are continuing to meet virtually, even from the same building.  Limit the number of people in common areas such as kitchens, break rooms, elevators, toilets, meeting rooms, printing rooms – areas which potentially cannot accommodate social distancing measures.

Introduce a phased return approach

Each phase should last at least 2-4 weeks.  Do not rush this!  Once people start coming back to the office, you will need to monitor the results. Track COVID-19 cases in your workforce, in your city, region, and state/province.  Track the number of concerns or complaints raised by staff.  Adjust the work schedule or office environment as required. Evaluate the situation and do not be afraid to rollback at any point if the results dictate. In fact, your memo to employees outlining your Return-to-Office plan should explain that staff’s safety and well-being are your priority and, if warranted, a full return to working remotely may be required. Ensure that both working remotely and from the workplace is available at the same time. It is important to communicate this from the onset to avoid giving employees the impression that the Return-to-Office failed, or that the Leadership Team jumped the gun in bringing people back or could not make up their mind.

While it is impossible for us to provide you with every ingredient to make your Return-to-Office plan complete, it is our goal to prompt you to think about how you will handle key aspects of this important endeavor.

If you have not started your return-to-the office yet or have a specific question that you would like answered, please post it in the comments section below.

Stay safe and be well,

Mark & Milena


About Mark Hoffman – Author | Speaker | MBCI, CBCP

Mark is an independent senior crisis management and business continuity consultant.  He is the founder and president of a boutique consulting firm that has been serving customers in North America, Europe, and the Caribbean for twenty years. Mark has successfully designed, deployed, and managed BCM and Crisis Management Programs for organizations in the financial, transportation, utility, insurance, risk management and real estate industries. Mark specializes in Program Development / Governance and Crisis / Cyber Management Planning. He is quick to build relationships and achieve results working collaboratively with business leaders and executives. Mark is a frequent contributor to blogs, podcasts, and webinars on the topic of crisis management, cyber response, and business continuity.  Feel free to contact Mark to see how he can help your organization be well prepared: [email protected], on Twitter @mhoffman_cbcp or search for Mark on LinkedIn.

About Milena Maneva, MSc | AMBCI

Milena holds a master’s degree in Risk Management with over ten years of risk management experience and is a certified as an Associate Member of the Business Continuity Institute (BCI) – she is currently working towards her MBCI application. Milena is active member and supporter of the Women in Resilience group in the UK. Raised in close proximity to a nuclear power plant, Milena became aware of the value of monthly drills as a child.  Those early experiences shaped her into the industry leader she is today.  She is a Business Continuity Management Lead for EMEA in a global financial services firm, looking after the business continuity and incident management for +40 offices, +6000 staff. She plays an influential role in the continuous improvement of her company’s global business resilience strategy and operations. You can contact Milena via