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Returning to the workplace: Lessons from essential businesses

As companies bring workers back to offices and plants, they can learn from organizations that have kept their facilities open during the COVID-19 crisis. This McKinsey Live webinar looks at the most important adjustments for safety in various work environments.

Challenged by high counts of new COVID-19 cases in some places and the looming threat of renewed outbreaks elsewhere, companies are wrestling with how to bring employees back to their workplaces while protecting them from the coronavirus and complying with health and safety regulations. Many are finding it helpful to borrow from the approaches taken by healthcare facilities, pharmacies, grocery stores, banks, and other businesses that have stayed open throughout the pandemic. In this McKinsey Live webinar, partner Mihir Mysore and senior partner Virginia Simmons highlight the fundamental elements of managing the risk of coronavirus infections while still doing business:

Understand when returning makes sense. The business environment has changed a great deal during the COVID-19 crisis—so much so, that returning to workplaces might be less urgent than leaders think. Demand has changed, as people have switched to buying online and cut spending overall. Workforce requirements are evolving: many companies are finding that remote work is an effective model for some employees, and discovering that they need different skill sets than they did before. Regulatory uncertainty has risen because of governments’ stimulus spending and an expected tilt in favor of localized economic activity. And scientists continue to learn more about the coronavirus, which changes the risk calculus and safety requirements.

Recognize your organization’s risk level. Some workplaces are relatively easy to control for hygiene and safety; others, less so. Two variables to look at are the proximity of exposure (how closely and how long people interact with each other in person) and the extent of exposure (how many other people an individual tends to encounter in a typical workday).

Implement safety measures for all work-related activities. Mitigating health risks involves more protocols than just those that apply while employees are on site. Companies can also define policies to help mitigate risks that can arise when employees are getting ready to return to workplaces after a long absence and commuting to and from their workplaces. A comprehensive set of protocols will cover pre-entry, travel to and from work locations, use of common spaces, and the period after an employee is found to have been infected.

Monitor the situation and adjust to changing conditions. As more employees come back to their workplaces and spend more time there, companies should remain vigilant, watching for not only infections and incipient outbreaks, but also changes in business performance. The “return to workplaces” isn’t a phase that companies pass through, on the way to a permanent new arrangement; it’s a mode of operating. It also requires new organizational structures, notably a “nerve center” responsible for collecting and consolidating data, anticipating changes, coordinating responses to new conditions, and tackling immediate concerns while planning ahead for longer-term shifts.

For more on this topic, please watch the webinar recording, read the McKinsey articles “Reopening safely: Sample practices from essential businesses” and “Return: A new muscle, not just a plan,” and review our collection of workplace-safety measures that have been used by organizations around the world.

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