Coronavirus (COVID-19), HR Management & Compliance, Learning & Development

Consider an Onboarding Refresh for Employees Returning to the Workplace During COVID-19

With employees working from home for varying periods of time, bringing them back into the workplace shouldn’t be an afterthought. In fact, it’s a good idea to think about these returning employees as new employees entering the workplace. Some onboarding may be in order.

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That onboarding may look considerably different from how it has looked in the past, though.

A ‘Hands-Off’ Approach to Onboarding

Kelly Williams, attorney and managing partner of Slate Law Group in San Diego, says, “we recommend prioritizing most communication through online video platforms to limit human contact.”

Rich Deosingh, a district president for Robert Half based in the firm’s midtown New York City office, says research from Robert Half shows that employees are particularly concerned about:

  • Being in close proximity to others in the office: 56%
  • Traveling for business: 57%
  • Attending in-person business events: 59%
  • Shaking hands: 72%

In addition, according to Robert Half’s research, 74% of all workers say they would like to telecommute more often than they did before the pandemic. Clearly, safety issues are top of mind.

Safety Is Top of Mind

One critical consideration for organizations, their learning and development (L&D) staff, and frontline supervisors and managers is that returning employees will be concerned first and foremost about safety.

If you think about Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, consider that safety and security are near the base of the hierarchy (second only to physiological needs for food, water, warmth, and rest). Until employees feel safe and secure, they won’t be able to move up the hierarchy.

Consequently, productivity—and engagement/loyalty—is likely to suffer. “When you are managing employees, it is important to ensure they feel supported, understood and safe,” says Williams.

Heather Dilley, VP of People and Culture with Ephesoft, Inc., a cloud document capture platform headquartered in Irvine, California, says companies need to be as transparent as possible as they bring employees back to work.

“They need to understand what steps the company has taken to ensure their safety,” she says. “This can range from changing the air filtration systems to reorganizing seating for social distancing and disinfecting the workplace.”

Dilley also stresses that employees need to understand what to expect before going into their physical workplaces. This includes procedures for how to participate in various scenarios like meetings, passing coworkers in common areas, elevators, etc. Even seemingly simple things bear consideration, like the use of coffee pots.

“We came up with solutions for coffee using a Keurig on each floor so individual servings are available and users must wipe the machine between uses with antibacterial wipes,” Dilley says. “Similarly, tea drinkers can take a box of tea to their desk and use that during the duration. For the hot water dispenser, it is expected that users wipe it down between usage.”

Local health authorities are a good resource for employers to ensure they understand what type of training and information might be necessary as they bring employees back to the workplace.

Get Input from Employees

“Surveying employees for feedback is always important, but it’s never been more crucial to HR than at this moment in time,” says Misty Guinn, director of benefits and wellness for Human Resources at Benefitfocus in Charleston, South Carolina. “Returning to the workplace is going to be much more than opening the doors and providing unlimited hand sanitizer,” she says. “It is a cultural call to action to start rebuilding trust and safety without our workplace environment.”

Seeking this feedback shouldn’t be an isolated effort, Guinn stresses. “It will be invaluable to regularly check employees’ comfort levels, concerns and morale as we create our communication strategies sand timelines,” she says.

“They need to know that their company values their input, mental health and—above all—the safety and total wellbeing of them and their families,” Guinn adds. “It is also key to be mindful of employees’ anxiety, stress and fears by communicating that the organization is cognizant of those pressures and promote the different types of support found in their benefit packages, such as your employee assistance programs and virtual behavioral health sessions.”

Best Practice Considerations

The following do’s and don’ts for employers bringing employees back to work are offered by Heather Smith, Chief People Officer and Senior Account Success Manager at Flimp Communications, as well as former VP of HR at Fidelity Investments.


  • Survey your employees to understand what their most important return-to-workplace concerns are.
  • One to 2 weeks before their return, set up a few Zoom meetings to go over safety guidelines based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) best practices, and explain what this will mean for the employees. Make these mandatory, and track all who participate.
  • Before bringing employees back to the office, take a video of the new office space; show them the social distancing markings, barriers, sanitization practices, stations, and mask requirements; explain new processes; and clearly communicate new schedules to limit capacity and exposure while in the office.
  • Provide employees with regular and ongoing updates about CDC guidelines and COVID outbreak news they should be aware of. 
  • Set up a text messaging system, and secure all opt-in approvals from employees for any urgent communications regarding changes in your workplace COVID prevention processes. 
  • Consider creating a virtual communications platform or portal for all relevant materials related to onboarding, benefits, wellness, etc. 


  • Expect employees to read your e-mails. Be sure you communicate vital information across all platforms—social, chat, text, e-mail, video, etc.
  • Go dark with communication. Now more than ever, employees need to see and hear from their employers.  
  • Get overwhelmed by new processes. Be patient with employees, and expect some hiccups along the way. The readjustment period for coming back to the office will be just as difficult a transition as working remotely was.

Consider Using a Transition Team

Melissa Cadwallader, MBA, PHR, an Austin-based HR leader with ZenBusiness, a public benefit corporation, suggests the use of a transition team to help with onboarding, rather than giving the responsibility to individuals or departments.

“Such a team will ideally include staff members from across the organization with a good understanding of internal processes,” she says. “They will be expected to communicate openly, arranging measures such as the reconfiguration of workspaces, staggering working hours, and ensuring regular sanitization based on the CDC guidelines for social distancing.”

In addition, while it may be disheartening to consider the possibility, Cadwallader suggests that organizations develop contingency plans that can be put in place in case of the reemergence of the coronavirus.

Avoid a One-Size-Fits-All Approach

Finally, Guinn says, “The most effective format in employee engagement is the multi-faceted approach because there is not a one-size-fits-all approach.” This, she says, can be achieved through virtual training, updated employee handbooks, and the introduction of new benefits to support employees during this transition, such as backup childcare programs and flexible scheduling.

Suggested resource: Due to COVID-19, the need for digitizing the onboarding process has never been more important. In a new white paper, we take a look at the key phases of the onboarding journey and how various DocuSign products can improve each step of the process, getting HR departments closer to an efficient digital experience. Learn how you can help your company virtualize your normal hiring and onboarding, so it can be done remotely. Click here to learn more, or to download your free copy.

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