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Planning for workforce re-entry during COVID-19

Return to work

Effective re-entry planning isn’t just about one thing, like setting up social-distancing lanes or having enough hand sanitizer. It involves preparing for a full range of safety, workforce, workplace, policy and technology issues that confront banks in the pandemic era.

The past few months have shown that banks can be remarkably flexible and imaginative. They’ve found ways to help their people stay productive and connected as the majority of the workforce works from home. But it’s clear that most corporate workplaces will undergo lasting change, with many rethinking their model for how and where work gets done.

Many banks are already ahead of the curve when it comes to thinking through bringing current employees back to their offices gradually. How and when that transition takes place requires careful planning. Many financial institutions will not have anywhere close to 100 percent of their workforce returning to the office— it could well be that only 25 percent are staggered to come into an office on any particular day.

Changes that seem simple can have big effects. For example, social distancing requirements will mean having fewer people in conference rooms. A room built for 30 people might now be used for just 12, and the extra chairs will need to go somewhere. A mid-sized tenant in an office building would now need storage for hundreds of chairs.

Elevator loading is another challenge, with rush hour taking on a whole new meaning. Companies are already modeling how long it would take for employees and clients to arrive on their desired floor given limited lobby and elevator space, due to social distancing. For one major company’s headquarters, it would require over two hours to get employees to their working floors each morning. And then another two hours at night for everyone to exit the building. Obviously, that is not sustainable.

Among other questions to be thought through: Are you asking the landlord to increase the building’s ventilation and filtration capabilities to help remove contaminants? How are you managing the lobby? What are the cleaning and sanitation protocols for common areas, such as vestibules, hallways and restrooms?

In developing frameworks to help companies examine and prepare for these issues, we typically find that there are more than 100 decisions that senior executives need to make in order to properly prepare for re-entry. But we can peel it back to the five big areas that help get at the core issues of how, when and what banks’ re-entry might look like:

Prioritize employee health and safety: The first task is helping people feel safe at work. Build up capabilities to monitor facilities. Major changes like requiring personal protective equipment (PPE) and new hygiene standards may be necessary to build employee and customer confidence.

Modify the workplace: Consider not only floor layouts and seating density, but also getting agreement from building owners on air filtration, maintenance of common areas and visitor protocols. Evaluate options for maintaining sanitary conditions at coffee stations, breakrooms and cafeterias – some are considering “ghost kitchens”, where the company organizes food delivery from an off-site kitchen. Effective communication can help employees understand these changes and maintain new behaviors.

Prepare the workforce: Those who return (and those who remain as remote workers) will need change management and communications on new procedures, safety measures and technology. Training will be required for the proper use of PPE, and the HR playbook probably needs to change, too, to reflect new productivity metrics and skill requirements.

Develop pandemic management protocols (PMPs): More than just a business buzzword, this involves complying with federal and local government mandates, as well as legal requirements and standards the company develops to help keep employees and visitors safe.

Use technology to enable new ways of working: Companies can assess what tools are needed to support collaboration between onsite and remote teams, as well as consider those that can help assess who may have interacted with an employee who went home after not feeling well.

As banks address these five areas of re-entry, they can see the impact of a decision to open all its offices by a certain date versus opening more gradually. An employee experience that is too unpleasant may lead some workers to question if it is worth making the trip in to the office after all. Striking the balance between safety and employee experience will be a challenge, meaning re-entry is likely to be a clunky transition for most of us.

With disruption comes innovation. Financial institutions that get it right will be better positioned to recover and then be able to thrive in a new and challenging environment.


Darin Buelow is a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP and leader of its global location strategy practice.