Engaging Employees While Reopening Your Workplace

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Employee experience and engagement has become an increasingly important focus for HR and people operations teams. Companies are beginning to shift mindsets from adapting to work from home to preparing to a return to “normal.” As restrictions ease and fears grow of a second wave, we are reminded that reopening the workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic will present numerous challenges. One challenge is the erosion of the company culture and employer brand that you have worked so hard to build and nurture. While you are rightfully focusing on the logistics and safety of bringing your workforce back, it is important to also keep in the opinions and views of all your employees in mind as well. 

Geography, age, family dynamics, and other personal factors may all influence an employee’s perspective about returning to the workplace. The limited availability of childcare for example may severely affect parents while high risk factors will affect others. 

During this time of uncertainty and shifting targets, it is important to engage in two way communication to fully understand the barriers, if any, your employees have to return to the workplace. In this blog, we will discuss:

  • Considerations when discussing return to work
  • How to gather information
  • The questions to ask 
  • And how you can communicate your plan

Considerations for Discussing Return to Work

Prior to collecting employee information, it is important to understand your organization’s capabilities as it relates to returning to work. For instance, if you are not able to offer a flexible return to work option, it will be important to keep your questions focused on what concerns or barriers they may face. On the other hand, if your company is able to allow employees flexibility to continue to work from home, you will want to ask questions that will help you improve their experience - for instance, about their ability to find work-life balance or if they feel informed or connected to the company while working from home.

Additionally, taking into consideration the government restrictions and regulations can help inform your conversation.

Ways to Collect Information from Employees

While your impulse may be to conduct a broad survey, it is important to note that not all topics are a good fit to include in a company-wide email survey. Below are examples of the types of ways you can collect information and how they are best used to determine employee’s thoughts on returning to the workplace:

One-on-one Meetings

One-on-one conversations are critical to a positive employee experience, and especially in times of crisis. Managers should be meeting with their direct reports individually to discuss the return to the workplace. One-on-ones can be used to have substantive conversations around: 

Employee Sentiment Regarding Returning to Work

Asking an individual how they feel about returning to the workplace provides a sense of their personal feelings and may inform you of a wider trend within your department or company. It will allow you to form better communication and find ways to address concerns. 

Unique Barriers to Returning to Work

Concerns like the status of your employees’ dependent care situations are important to understand as you plan your reopening. A one-on-one conversation works best to help a manager and employee discuss options, understand what is needed, and come to a solution that works for both parties.

Discussing Sensitive Topics

Concerns about exposure, pre-existing conditions, or living with high risk family members can feel "cold" to measure in surveys. One-on-one conversations allow you to show care in real-time and understand their viewpoint more fully.  

Goal Alignment or Reviews

Even for those that typically work from home, they are likely to sense some type of disruption due to the pandemic. Gaining an understanding of where they are in their professional goals is important to acknowledge and continue to work toward, even through a chaotic time. Aligning on goals and objects will provide focus for employees. 

Pulse Surveys

A great way to get a broad and thorough view of your employees circumstances is through surveys. Pulse surveys, which are short, quick employee surveys, are a great way to gain insight on how employees feel about a specific area. You can use pulse surveys to focus on topics such as company communication, work-life balance, and understanding what constitutes good performance.  

Pulse surveys provide an overview of how employees are doing and can show data by demographics or team, allowing leaders to take effective measures to address problem areas. 


Questions to ask

Depending on your company’s unique scenario, you will want to carefully consider which questions to ask when engaging employees through one-on-ones and surveys. You will want to keep questions focused on gathering information that will be useful and inform your decisions.

There are a few specific topics associated with reopening the workplace that we recommend keeping in your survey and a few you should leave out:


  • Conduct one-on-one conversations about challenges that would prevent them from returning to work without asking specifically about medical or family related issues
  • Determine and communicate the primary avenue for addressing individual employees’ personal and family situations
  • Use employee feedback to understand concerns and realities or collect additional ideas, and recognize the wide spectrum of individual differences.
  • Keep continuous conversations with employees about their well-being and nudge teams to make the right choices for themselves


  • Invite employees to provide their preference around protective equipment or other safety precautions 
  • Ask survey questions about employees’ medical histories and family situations
  • Be overly general when asking about their well-being or emotions which may change day to day. Instead focus on questions on areas that can be addressed. For example:
    • I feel supported by my managers when working from home.
    • I trust our leaders to take appropriate safety measures before allowing employees to return to our workplace.
    • I feel well-informed about the safety measures being taken to allow our employees to return to the workplace.

Communicate Your Plan

Communicating effectively with your entire company has likely been a top priority throughout the pandemic. It has never been more critical for us to stay connected and provide localized updated communications to each employee. You will want to ensure that the same thought level of attention goes into going back to the “workplace” before, during and after. 

Survey information and feedback from managers will provide great insight on which concerns to address and when. You will not only want to provide them information and instruction, but also training if necessary. 

Final Thoughts

As we all navigate through these uncertain times, we have to be mindful that everyone’s experience is going to be different. Your company’s ability to be thoughtful and responsive will have lasting implications on your employee experience and employer brand. While it presents challenges, it also presents opportunities to show leadership and for those companies who have had struggles in the past, to get it right and set a new, improved course for the future. 

Read more about the importance of employer branding from LevelUP Founder Curtis Grajeda: Why One Expert Says Employer Branding is Essential During and After a Crisis, Forbes Marketplace 


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