Manufacturing Safety for Manitoba

COVID-19: 7 Steps to employee group re-integration

COVID-19: 7 Steps to employee group re-integration

Posted on May 29, 2020

As the curve begins to flatten in some Canadian jurisdictions, employers across the country are wondering when the time will be right to bring employees back to work. Regardless of when our workforce is recalled, it’s never too soon to think about how your business will re-integrate scores of employees who have been working from home or who have been temporarily out of the workforce.

Step 1: Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Employees are experiencing a wide range of emotions. Helping them manage those emotions while away and during their return to the workplace will make the transition smoother for everyone. Reach out, listen with empathy, and ask what they are learning during this period. These actions will help employees to feel a sense of control and stability as they begin to plan for a return to the workplace. Ideally these touchpoints will be conducted with some regularity by the employees’ supervisor, although this may not always be feasible. Transparency is always key and that openness will pay forward.

Step 2: Create a Return-To-Work Plan

The best plans will incorporate gradual and phased in approaches. There are two factors to consider:

  • When your business re-opens/orders pick up
  • When employees’ personal lives resume to ‘normal’. This includes daycare and schools re-opening, once public health orders ease in your jurisdiction

Communicate the plan to your internal stakeholders and ensure any physical changes, policy updates, signage, etc. are completed prior to the return of staff. Consider whether employees will be returning in masse, or in small groups over a set interval to allow the system time to adjust. The latter can reduce strain on your organization but carefully consider the order in which you will be recalling groups and communicate your rationale accordingly. Think practically through the application of current health guidelines as you create your plan. If re-training is needed, or you typically hold large employee assemblies, you will need to re-think those aspects and plan accordingly. This will mean smaller group sizes, which means more coordination is required to minimize non-production time. Be aware that the risk of sprains and strains will be greatest for your returning workers in the first three weeks of the return. Planning a graduated return to full duties, whether shortened days, job rotation or simply reducing the amount of heavy physical labour needed in the operation, will help mitigate risks. The more planning you do up front, the smoother the return to work will go.

Step 3: Upon Return to the Physical Workplace Communicate Again!

Update staff on changes or policies that were made as a result of COVID-19 and clearly communicate which of those changes will become permanent and which will eventually return to pre-pandemic states. Be particularly clear in re-stating what the new normal operating expectations are for the purposes of creating a safe work environment (both physical and psyschological), and to satisfy legal requirements. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • New PPE requirements
  • New SOP’s
  • Any potential short-term changes that might have been made to attendance, vacation or sick leave policies
  • New break and schedule times

Step 4: Debrief and Reflect

Taking the time to debrief and reflect with your teams is critical. Employees will have mixed emotions about returning to the workplace. While many will be energized by the socialization and other aspects they may have missed, some will have realized they found unexpected benefits in how they performed their work at home. Ask your employees what they let go of, or found little or no value in. Practice the tools of a Lean operation to identify wastes while looking to insights and best practices that could be formally adopted as the new normal. Explore these options together where you can. It will be interesting for all of us to reflect on what may have previously seemed difficult or impossible, yet we were suddenly able to achieve.

Step 5: Review Roles and Responsibilities

A review with each team member should include a discussion of what may have changed as an organization, down to a departmental level, then again cascaded to the impact at an individual level. Perhaps an employee in procurement now needs to source new/different PPE. Or as a company you have determined it is a high priority to review your supply chains and look for more local suppliers. For manufacturers who re-tooled their assembly lines, it will be important for everyone to understand the new customer base and demands. Engineers may need to draw new floor plans to accommodate long term health directives on physical distancing.

Step 6: Consider the Psychological and Physical Impacts

Be mindful of the impacts of working from home, or not at all, on an employees’ return to work. Some employees will have found healthy routines while they were away while others may have experienced the opposite. Depression and anxiety may have settled in, and may carry over even as the world returns to “normal”. Where possible, take lead from your usual return to work practices. Any large scale graduated return to work will place additional burden on your front line leaders, and safety team. Ensure that production output expectations are realistic and appropriate, and that this has been communicated to your frontline leaders clearly. Stretch breaks become even more important while EAP programs and supports are helpful reminders. Talk openly about what a huge change this is. Join your employees at coffee breaks, be present, and be empathetic to what employees have experienced over these past few weeks and months.

Step 7: Resilience

Post-pandemic, manufacturers in all industries will find themselves reflecting back on this experience from all angles. As leaders, we would be remisce if we did not look back and ask ourselves how prepared we were in hindsight. How resilient was our company, our leaders and our employees. Did we equip our people with the tools they needed to weather this storm? Identify lessons learned and work with your HR partners and other business support teams to explore training and development plans to build on any leadership gaps that came to light through this experience. The COVID-19 fight will be a long one, with most experts identifying risk management measures will be required until a vaccine can successfully be introduced. By all estimates, we are still 12-18 months away from this milestone. It can be difficult to picture what life will look like again, at home, and at work. While daunting, in other ways this presents an opportunity on a massive scale to re-imagine how we perform our work.

For more information

Download the full employee group re-integration tip sheet which includes a sample return to work plan.


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