You’re going back to work. 

Don’t believe me? Okay, maybe you have a progressive CEO, and your work-from-home days aren’t numbered. Still, your friends and neighbors will head back to the office once vaccines are available to children ages 12-15 and mask mandates are lifted in your municipality. 

Why are corporations reverting to pre-pandemic work arrangements? Some CEOs like David Solomon at Goldman Sachs or Jes Stanley at Barclays believe that working from home is an aberration and unsustainable. Your leadership team isn’t much different. How can that be in 2021? I have no idea. It seems like everything old is new again. Case in point: CEOs being patriarchs

Going back to work full-time will suck for a lot of people. Long commutes. Lack of autonomy. Declining physical and mental health outcomes. What if you work in HR and you’re forced to navigate this return-to-work terrain? My advice is to buckle up, continue to improve your skills as a public health educator and facilities manager and develop a strong relationship with a good employment lawyer.

Here are some other thoughts on how HR should manage the push to return to work.


Prepare for Breakthrough COVID Cases

Have you been watching the news? COVID variants are cropping up everywhere. You can implement a strict vaccination policy and buy all the hand sanitizers in the world, but someone in your office will probably come down with a breakthrough case of COVID-19.

What’s an HR professional to do? Don’t be blindsided by the risks. Start by recognizing that people will still get sick with COVID, even after they are vaccinated. Also, people might feel unwell but turn out to be perfectly okay. That’s why you must create clear and comprehensive policies that accomplish two goals: avoid worker-related confusion and assure your leadership team that employees aren’t abusing the organization’s goodwill. 

Ask yourself this:

Do you know what workers should do if they aren’t sure if their symptoms are a cold, allergies, or COVID? What if a worker was exposed onsite? What if an employee has a sick relative? Prepare to become an expert in rapid testing strategies for your workforce. Get ready to become part-time contract tracers. Talk to your HR technology provider to help implement new technology to aid in communication, compliance, and tracking.

Know this:

Do a premortem. Everything that can go wrong will happen. You can’t build enough risk models here. The scenario you overlook is the one that will expose your employees to the virus or, more likely, irk the shit out of your CEO.


Prepare to Triage Work-From-Home Requests

Let’s say your entire workforce is expected back in the office on July 1st at 8:30 AM sharp. Good grief, is your CEO serious? Does he mean everybody? 

Yes, he means the entire employee population. But you and I both know that’s not realistic.

Human resources leaders know that a blanket decree from a CEO isn’t always easy to implement. Prepare for an influx of accommodation requests from employees who are like — hell no. Create transparent and widely socialized policies that outline how and why those applications will be approved and denied.

Ask yourself this:

If your CEO truly wants everyone back to work, no exceptions, how will HR handle the worker who is immunocompromised but super-productive at home? Do you fire that person? How about the mom with a child who has long-haul COVID? What about caregivers whose kids can’t attend daycare for the next two weeks because an employee at the nursery tested positive for COVID?

Know this:

HR always made exceptions for talented people, and your CEO will probably look the other way for a few workers. But the post-COVID world of work demands transparency, and “talented” is subjective — and sometimes racist, sexist, transphobic, ableist, and totally unfair. Get yourself a good employment lawyer on speed dial.


Branding Matters

Let’s learn a lesson from Basecamp and acknowledge that employee communication is a landmine. Do it poorly, and it all goes to hell. Do it well, and nobody notices. 

That’s the goal, by the way. No drama.

If your CEO wants everybody back to work over the summer, make this easier by branding it something other than a “get back to work” proclamation from the boss. 

Ask yourself this:

Can your company label itself a hybrid organization, even for a few weeks, before you’re back to work like it’s 2019? Can you use summer hours to help acclimate workers back to the office?

Know this:

Your marketing department can help with messaging and tone. And don’t overhype the return-to-the-office as if it’s some great family moment where the organization comes together as one. If we learned anything from the coronavirus and social isolation, our coworkers are not family.


Site Leadership is In Charge

Although HR feels like it must own all people-related initiatives, the truth is that site leaders and directors are always in charge — and HR is never part of site leadership. Sorry, but it’s true. So, before you act like the return-to-work project is an HR-led initiative, step back and give this potential mess to the executives and line leaders who are actually responsible for running the business. 

Ask yourself this:

Is this your circus? Are those your monkeys?

Know this:

Your job is to educate, equip, empower and enable. Embody all the buzzwords. Then go home and look for an HR job where you aren’t on the wrong side of history.


Prepare for Regrettable Turnover

There’s regrettable turnover, where a stellar employee quits amid a talent shortage, and unregrettable turnover where Judy from procurement finally makes good on her threats and retires.

HR hates regrettable turnover — the kind that hits your organization in the gut and could’ve been prevented through common sense, conversation and compromise. But some resignations hurt more than others, which is why good-old-fashioned succession planning is going to get super hot in 2021.

Ask yourself this:

Has it been a while since you did an audit of your organization? Have you heard of talent mapping or organizational modeling but have no idea what it means? How does your compensation structure link to your retention strategy? 

Know this:

Succession planning has multiple steps and isn’t just putting names in boxes. Dig in the SHRM archives for succession planning 101, or google a technology provider with performance management and succession planning expertise.


Return-to-Work Starts Now

If you’re a big company, you’ve probably been working on your return-to-work strategy for months. But small and medium-sized organizations are just now growing comfortable with their remote workforce. Soon, HR will disrupt that equilibrium level because the CEO knows the guy who rents the commercial real estate to the organization — they went to college together — and that dude needs the lease renewed.

Do you wonder if human resources can stop this mess? Unfortunately, you can’t make your leadership team see that the future of work is hybrid. They have to come to this opinion themselves. 

So, if you even have the slightest clue that your leadership team wants to get back into the office during summer 2021, get to work. And prepare yourself for an onslaught of questions about office airflow quality, sick policies, and masks.

Isn’t it fun to work in HR?


  1. It’s crucial to avoid the phrase “return to work,” like everyone’s been on vacation for the past 14 months. The reality for those of us lucky enough to continue working from home is that we never stopped. For many of us, this required extraordinary creativity, flexibility, and often involved bearing some personal cost — either materially, or by straining on family relationships, or both. Good leaders recognize and acknowledge these plain facts, early and often. They frame the next transition as a “return to the office,” not a “return to work.”

  2. Managing the return to the office isn’t as simple as going back to pre-pandemic working patterns. Many companies are taking the opportunity to embrace hybrid and remote working to take advantage of the health and productivity benefits they can offer.

  3. I can imagine how difficult it is to plan for a return to work while ensuring your employees are happy & satisfied with it. The recent boom of the hybrid & remote work these days during the pandemic has led to a great rise in the number of people who just want to work from home permanently.

    And with many major firms switching over to remote and hybrid work environments, planning a return to work strategy has become even more difficult!

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