Preparing for the Known Unknown: HCM Leaders and the Return-to-Work Conundrum

Connex Staff |

With the new promise of widespread vaccine rollout, HCM leadership must consider the complex implications of a return to work while continuing to optimize the work from home experience. It is still too early to know what this will look like for most organizations, with myriad considerations to puzzle through, including vaccine requirements, access to testing as-needed, on-premise mental health support, and strategies for recapturing the spirit of company culture. 

What are we hearing?

Our Membership falls largely into three camps: Those whose operations have forced all, or a number of, their full-time employees to report to work through the pandemic, largely comprising engineering, manufacturing, and warehousing; those who embraced a remote environment for all or most of their people, and who have decided to make this their default model; and those for whom work-from-home represents an undesirable state of affairs, and who are determined to break out of it as soon as possible. As such, there are a number of businesses who are not struggling with the “return to work” conundrum at all, but for those who are – including organizations with a liberal remote work policy but who are giving employees a choice – the process can feel quite daunting. 

Notably, these concerns aren’t limited to the employer; one Connex Member reported that their employees had taken a recent, paint-by-numbers engagement survey as an opportunity to bombard HR with questions related to a potential return, airing concerns about timetables, safety, and ongoing flexibility. Needless to say, controlling this narrative early – or as much as possible given the prevailing uncertainty – is critical, as employees want to feel secure in the knowledge that their employer has considered all of their concerns ahead of time and is giving their needs and expectations the requisite level of respect. 

As such, HCM leaders should make the effort to survey and gather feedback from employees in order to gain a clear understanding of their specific concerns and expectations; constructing a specially designated team, tapping a highly trusted individual, or utilizing existing employee support groups is another important first step – some organizations are executing this work in conjunction with third parties that provide regular support to employees, such as wellness companies, insurance providers, and EAPs. The key in any case is to ensure that there is broad alignment around the message that the organization wishes to convey and embed within the culture. Whether initially or in short order, this must of course also include leadership, from frontline supervisors and managers to the middle tier of directors and VPs, up to the executive layer. To the extent possible, plans should be structured to reflect the needs of individual employees, or at the minimum those who are more at-risk or whose domestic considerations are particularly restrictive. 

From a more tactical perspective, it’s also critical to determine when employees should be tested and how often, protocols for responding to infection within the workplace, social distancing mandates, and an easily executable response plan in the event of a surge or new government restrictions. There is some challenging territory here, as collecting employee biodata and restricting access based on medical risk is a slippery slope, with multiple guidelines enacted by the EEOC and ADA to prevent discrimination, inadvertent or otherwise. Obviously, it is crucial that someone be responsible for translating all government regulations, mandates, and best practice guidelines into on-the-ground protocols that fit operational reality. With the current environment in constant flux, the importance of regular monitoring and liaising with the relevant authorities whenever possible cannot be overstated, mitigating risk and preserving compliance. The last thing any organization needs is additional burdens associated with lawsuits or fines. Because of the sheer volume of challenges, the complexity, and all of the moving parts that go into a return-to-work plan in the midst of a still deadly global pandemic, it may also benefit some employers to stagger reentry, or limit the initial group to certain teams, departments, or specialties and take a wait-and-see approach from there. 


Unprecedented times come with extraordinary challenges, and the HCM professionals charged with preserving business continuity, culture, performance, and individual wellbeing are uniquely beset by pressure to get it right. While reams of published white papers, thought pieces, and roadmaps for reentry exist, every organization will face different problems and different opportunities based on their unique context, industry, population, and business goals. Success in one environment does not mean success in another, so HCM leaders must not only take stock of prevailing wisdom, engage with their peers, and seek out as much innovative thinking as possible, they must also be prepared to backtrack, reformat, and adjust as plans unfold and new challenges emerge. While this may feel overwhelming for some, it’s important to take solace in the fact that everyone is experiencing the same uncertainty, the same unknown threats, and it is only through thorough planning, trial, error, and regular engagement with our peers that we can hope to build a better, more prepared future.

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