Return to the Workplace Playbook and Factors that Can Help Employers Decide and Deploy

Patama Chantaruck

VP for Indochina Expansion and MD

IBM Thailand



Since mid-March, more than 95 percent of IBM's global workforce has been working remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, as some countries and regions around the world prepare to "reopen," organizations need information that can help support their ongoing efforts to evaluate conditions and mobilize employees to return to work.


The COVID-19 pandemic has many people asking: When will conditions be favorable to let employees return to the workplace? Under what conditions can employees remain at work in the event of local flare-ups?


During uncertain times, knowing when to ask employees to return to work, and remain at work, can be a very complex decision for employers. They must balance the well-being of their employees with the needs of their clients and strength of their organizations. They must also consider factors unique to each location and individual employees, and they should understand where additional protocols could be put in place that can help protect vulnerable employees.


To help do this effectively, we consider drawing insights from five primary types of data:

  1. Local COVID-19 infection rates and trends
  2. Employee symptoms and test results
  3. Population health status and risk factors
  4. State and local regulations
  5. Applicable company policies


It can be challenging to work with these data inputs, as they can change daily. Applying analytics to information gathered from employees about their current symptoms and risk of exposure, as well as localized data on infection rates and trends, can help give employers a clearer picture of locations where conditions have been met to bring employees back to the workplace. Or these insights may help an employer decide where to delay bringing employees back to protect employee health. In addition, organizations can leverage information on population health and vulnerability to gain insights into specific locations where more stringent health and safety protocols are needed.


Considerations for the employee experience during COVID-19


Organizations I’ve spoken with are very focused on employee health and well-being as they work remotely and prepare to re-enter the workplace. Employee-facing tools designed to help communicate company information and gather individual employee data are critical. Some employers are turning to virtual assistants and conversational AI to help respond to the volume of questions. For example, IBM has trained Watson Assistant to deliver fast, accurate answers to common questions about COVID-19.


In a fluid situation, it’s also important for employers to be able to routinely assess employee health and readiness to return to work. This means they need tools that enable employees to share self-reported information in near real time. Like other technologies that support employee healthcare decisions – such as when employees select a health insurance plan – these applications must adhere to high standards of data privacy and security.


Employees and employers must work together to help inform decisions about the right time to return to the workplace. Unfortunately, it is unlikely this will be a one-time decision, as COVID-19 infection rates and state and local policies may fluctuate over time.


IBM has developed a data-driven, evidence-based set of guidelines for returning to the workplace. The document shared here—the “IBM Return to Workplace Playbook”—offers practical guidance to employees, partners and clients on IBM’s initial phases of returning to workplaces, when and where feasible.


The “IBM Return to Workplace Playbook” includes return-to-workplace considerations for the first wave of employees to return to shared work settings. Timing for future waves of employees returning to their workplaces will be determined based on careful assessment of the health and policy landscape in specific locations.


This Playbook provides guiding principles and assumptions; guidelines for returning in three waves, beginning with employees in jobs best suited to on-site work settings in locations that meet rigorous criteria; workplace preparations and procedures for employers; preparations and processes to be followed by employees, clients and visitors; and a readiness checklist.


The Playbook is a working document and will adjust as conditions change and new practices and procedures become available.

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