Planning an Office Return Amidst COVID-19? Training is Key

A Changed Working Environment

By Cyndi Mellen

August 13, 2020

COVID-19 has fundamentally changed how the world does business. Organizations that typically rely on an office-based work environment have quickly adapted to maintain their operations within an entirely new set of rules-moving in-person coordination to virtual platforms, implementing “touchless” service models, and encouraging or enforcing mask wearing for everyday interactions. As organizations look forward to the future of office work, now is the time for long-term planning.

Experts at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) advise us that COVID-19 won’t be going away overnight. Physical distancing (also called social distancing) is necessary to reduce transmission, enabling our healthcare systems to maintain the capacity to save lives. The CDC is already planning for a COVID-19 seasonal resurgence for fall 2020. A study published in Science by Harvard public health researchers explores scenarios and associated timelines based on other viruses in the coronavirus family (i.e., viruses that cause the common cold). They offer that the seasonality of the virus’ resurgence coupled with the lack of a pharmaceutical intervention and other factors will likely cause longer-term impacts, with an epidemic persisting into 2022. They argue this would require physical distancing measures enacted between 25 percent and 75 percent of the time throughout that period. Perhaps even more concerning is their finding that resurgences could occur into 2025. This makes it essential to plan for a solution that enables your business to thrive while maintaining the safety of your employees, clients, vendors, and other stakeholders at the office-starting with a strong training foundation.

Determine Your Organization’s COVID-19 Training Needs

Training is critical as part of your wider recovery strategy. A successful training course will communicate safety information, elicit employee perspectives on work/life balance and take measures to respond and adapt to feedback, and teach employees how to mitigate risks to themselves and others. Training actively engages employees in your long-term strategy, which is the best way to give them confidence that you have one.

To consider what your employees need to know before heading back into work, your recovery team should ask the following questions:

  • What new plans, policies, and procedures will the organization implement to ensure employee safety as they return to the office?
  • How frequently and completely has the organization been communicating about business operations during COVID-19?
  • Are there any special considerations pertaining to the organization that need to be addressed in the training? These may include travel (local, out-of-state, or international), work to be completed at client locations, and associated state, local, or federal guidance.
  • What resources can we share to inform employees of the risks associated with going back into the office and mitigation measures they can take to reduce these risks?

You should use these answers to inform the content, length, and delivery methods of your training course. Online training is recommended before employees return to the office to help prepare them for the new environment. The training should help them understand what your organization is doing to keep them safe and their responsibilities for engaging in COVID-safe practices. Generally, employees will be more engaged with a real-time training delivery with video and the opportunity for two-way interaction than they will be with prerecorded material. That said, don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good-delivering training in a less-than-ideal medium is worlds better than not sharing information at all.

Develop Your Organization’s COVID-19 Training Program

We recommend that, at a minimum, your training cover the following topics:

  • Discuss COVID-19 Social Impacts: To garner employee interest and buy-in, acknowledge the reality they’ve been living in and the difficulties they may have experienced during this crisis. Generating this conversation with employees, perhaps starting with some personal experiences from willing participants, will go a long way in helping your employees engage.
  • Report on COVID-19 Business Impacts: Provide an overview of how COVID-19 has impacted your business in terms of work for service lines/sectors, projected loss or gain to business and profits, and other organization-specific metrics to communicate the health of your company. Bad news is scary, but no news or false hope is even scarier. Employees will appreciate your transparency.
  • Share your Roll-out Plan for Heading Back to the Office: Give employees the nuts and bolts of the plan, including:
    • Who: Who will be heading back into the office? Were essential personnel designated, and if so, how? Are employees able to opt into or out of coming back?
    • What: Is there a staggered or adjusted schedule? Are there new plans, processes, or procedures that employees will need to learn and follow? This may include self-screening/temperature check daily to confirm staff are asymptomatic before heading to the office. New practices for office hygiene should be discussed, such as how communal items like cups and forks should be treated. What measures is the company taking to keep employees safe (e.g., increased cleaning and disinfection)?
    • When: How long do you anticipate the proposed arrangement will last? Is there a time-phased approach to share with employees? Be clear where there are uncertainties-employees will understand that you don’t have all the answers and may even provide valuable ideas that help fill in the blanks.
    • Where: Are there particular locations or sites that will go back first or not be expected to go back, such as areas with a higher incidence of COVID-19?
    • How: Communicate that these decisions have been made in line with the latest state, local, and federal guidance and take into account employee needs and concerns. This should cover: What resources are available to employees? Who should employees reach out to for more information? How should employees report their own suspected illness or family member illness or death and how will that information be treated and protected?
  • Cover Baseline Guidance for Office Work and Interactions: This may include physical distancing measures such as new seating arrangements for adequate spacing, how in-person meetings should be conducted, and general information on safe distance for communication in common areas.
  • Discuss Requirements for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and Demonstrate Effective Use: Inform employees of what PPE you will be providing and what you request or require them to acquire on their own, including any specifications. Clearly communicate when they will be required to wear these items and proper usage. This should include explicit guidance on safely putting on (donning) and taking off (doffing) masks, gloves, face shields, gowns, and/or goggles depending on work-related responsibilities. We recommend a visual, virtual demonstration where the instructor shows employees how to safely use any recommended or required PPE. If possible, employees can practice donning and doffing PPE as part of the training delivery. This section should also cover common ways to render PPE ineffective through misuse.
  • Discuss What to Do if Employees Get Sick at the Office: Train employees on any policies and procedures for immediately isolating people who have signs and/or symptoms of COVID-19 in the office and cannot leave on their own. Where possible, designate clear areas with closable doors to serve as isolation rooms until potentially sick people can be removed from the office by emergency medical professionals. If an employee gets sick and leaves the office, discuss who at the organization they should notify and what information they should share.
  • Address Employee Mental Health: This is an incredibly important topic-the instructor should acknowledge that everyone has their own struggles related to COVID-19, from loved ones falling ill or dying from the disease, round-the-clock care for family members, or social isolation exacerbating existing mental health issues. Review resources available to employees that specifically target their mental health and wellbeing.
    • Reduce Stigma around COVID-19: Stigma impacts the emotional or mental health of targeted groups-fight ignorance with facts. COVID-19 can make anyone sick, regardless of race or ethnicity. Communicate a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination in the workplace, including negative statements about groups of people, or exclusion of people who pose no risk from regular activities following quarantine.
    • Reduce Stigma around Mental Health: Employees may feel they need to put up a good front or “tough it out” if they’re struggling. It’s critical that the instructor speak from a position of empathy, sharing stories of difficulties they are facing to help others be honest about their own struggles and seek the help they need.
  • Communicate How to Share Feedback: Share that you’re open to feedback on the training itself and the organization’s COVID-19 response more broadly. If there’s time in the training, solicit and address this feedback. If not, share the point of contact and be clear that all feedback will be reviewed and considered. To set expectations, it may also be helpful to let employees know how the feedback will be processed, such as potential updates to COVID-19 response communication, FAQ documents and related updates, or adjustments to the training. If possible, create a five-minute online survey so employees can give anonymous feedback if desired. Be prepared for candid feedback and demonstrate both empathy and confidence in responding to any employee concerns.
  • Share a Commitment to Maintain Flexibility: Given the uncertainty around COVID-19, your approach will likely evolve over time. Acknowledge that this is also the case for your employees and that you will remain as flexible as possible to their needs and concerns throughout this crisis.

Generally, employees will be more engaged with a real-time training delivery than prerecorded material. But don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good-delivering training in a less-than-ideal medium is worlds better than not sharing information at all.

Recommended Resources

While determining your business recovery strategy and training implementation, it’s critical to reference reputable sources with evidence-based writing and authenticated reporting practices. This will ensure your decisions are well-informed and grounded in public health principles, ultimately promoting the safety of your employees.

Cadmus recommends the following resources for general information on COVID-19:

Fact-checking websites may help discern specific inquiries, including sites like, International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN),, or The World Health Organization’s Myth Busters site dispels common COVID-19 misinformation.