Businesses across the country have endured major losses as a result of COVID-19 and an array of shelter-in-place mandates. Yet one of the greatest challenges may still be ahead for business owners and their HR teams: Creating safe workplaces so employees can return with confidence.

Politicians at the local and national level have warned that the journey back to the “new normal” will be slow and challenging. Employers cannot realistically expect to simply open their doors and have employees return to old routines and levels of productivity. Without a vaccine or proven methods of treatment, many employees (especially those in high-risk groups) may be hesitant to return to the workplace. Others may need special accommodations because of their health concerns. Those who return will likely be distracted because of ongoing news reports and concerns for their own health or that of their family members.  Still others will continue to struggle with childcare options as our economy opens slowly in phases.

Employers and their HR teams need to be thinking ahead and planning accordingly to address these challenges and distractions. They need to be proactive, strategic, and thoughtful in their approach in order to create cultures of certainty, confidence, and safety amidst the turbulence and chaos.

The road to recovery — financially and emotionally — will be a long one, and employers will need to be flexible in their approaches to adapt to the changing needs and concerns of their workers. Initially, however, employers should consider taking the below five actions to ready their workplaces:

  • Ensure a safe workplace by implementing routine screenings at the door and formal policies that encourage sick employees to stay home. As necessary, PTO and leave policies may need to be reviewed and updated to effectively promote the idea of not coming to work when sick.
  • Educate employees on the need for a safe workplace and how they can contribute to it. This includes some of the simple reminders that we’ve all heard over the past months, including washing hands regularly, avoiding group gatherings, covering the mouth when sneezing or coughing, etc. In addition, encourage employees to come forward with new ideas for enhancing workplace safety. Consider the formation of an employee safety task force that can work collaboratively with HR to implement new policies and procedures.
  • Boost morale and create a more relaxed atmosphere with the introduction of fun activities and relaxation breaks. Encourage employees to take advantage of company-sponsored EAP resources and maintain a healthy work-life balance. Educate supervisors on the warning signs that an employee may be struggling emotionally and in need of help.
  • Encourage open communication and quickly and directly address employee concerns. It’s critical to encourage a culture of transparency in which employees feel comfortable sharing concerns and reporting violations without fear of consequences.
  • Frequently communicate updates as to what the company is doing to create a safer work environment. This is important for existing employees, as well as new recruits who will likely have similar concerns and may choose an employer based on their level of confidence in the company’s commitment to their health and safety.

Most importantly, employers should be realistic in their expectations. The doors may be open, but it will certainly not be business as usual. By being vigilant to employee concerns and maintaining the empathy and flexibility to respond accordingly, however, workplaces can again become inviting and productive.


Allison Velez is chief people officer for Paladina Health, one of the country’s largest providers of direct primary care, with clinics in Tacoma, Federal Way, and Puyallup. Paladina Health partners with employers and unions to provide health care solutions that minimize costs, enhance access to quality care, and improve employee health outcomes.