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Return-to-Work Planning: 5 Foundational Steps

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way the world conducts business. Regulatory and authoritative bodies such as the CDC and OSHA continue to require organizations to implement health and safety measures to protect employees and customers. Whether they’re dealing with a remote workforce, starting the process of returning to work, or grappling with the reality of being open for business, the same health and safety regulatory obligations are still in place.

Planning a safe return to work is more than just checking the box; in a COVID-dominated business landscape, it requires a holistic understanding of business goals and objectives: How the organization is structured; and what people, processes, and infrastructures support the business. are fundamental to any risk and compliance program.

Here are five steps to lay the groundwork and identify priorities, so you can plan a safe return to work with a risk-based approach:

  1. Understand your business
  2. Define your risk appetite and tolerance
  3. Identify channels that support your customers
  4. Catalog employees and vendors
  5. Know what is at risk

Read on to get properly prepared to create a safe, thoughtful back-to-work plan.

1. Understand Your Business

The key to successful return-to-work planning is understanding your business. Risk managers can start by asking themselves three questions: 

  • What are my business objectives? 
  • What processes support those objectives? 
  • What relationships are necessary for these processes?

What are your business objectives? 

While it seems natural that a successful company would “know” its key business objectives, these are often not well documented or prioritized, especially at the departmental/operational level. It’s important to understand these well in advance, to keep priorities clear and consistent during return-to-work planning. The best way to gain this understanding is to talk with department leads about their responsibilities and priorities. Ask them to explain how specific objectives are established and met. 

For example, a call center may have the business objective of providing 24-hour call-in services to international customers. To maintain this objective, the company might need to offer resources for employees to work staggered shifts from home.

What are your supporting processes? 

Identify what processes directly support your business objectives. For the call center, technological processes are vital for the center to function: Requests from the website, for example, might need to be routed among customer service representatives in different time zones. Processes should be able to change based on evolving circumstances, but the details are critical or processes - and objectives - to be met.

What relationships are necessary for these processes?

Additionally, understanding the relationship between processes is as least as important as the processes themselves. When a call-center issue is resolved, for example, the time it took to resolve the case might be documented, and become part of a report tracking case closure rates for the company, and reported to the board and to shareholders. Without processes in place to update information, downstream decisions - about returning to work and otherwise - might not be sound.

Once you understand the primary objectives that will be the focus of all of your efforts, everything else needs to trickle up to accomplishing those goals. Risk management efforts cannot impede the success of these goals. Sacrificing success for safety should not be a viable solution. 

2. Define Risk Appetite and Tolerance

Risk appetite: The broad level of risk a company is willing to accept in pursuit of an objective.

Risk tolerance: The degree of variance or risk you’re willing to accept per goal or per risk.

Defining your risk appetite and tolerance will allow you to focus your energy on mitigating risk that you are not willing to tolerate. Defining risk tolerance and appetite to prioritize risk will save you time and energy, allowing you to target the risk that poses the biggest threat to your business objectives and the processes that support them.

3. Identify Channels That Support Your Customer

Where do you interact with your customers? In person? Social media? Customer webinars?

Understanding the channels that support customers helps risk managers understand what processes directly impact the customer experience. Changes to customer supporting channels are significant when adapting to COVID-19. Decision-makers need to prioritize the health and safety of employees, as well as that of customers, without sacrificing the customer experience. It’s the balancing act of the century. 

How can you ensure the same customer experience with your new health and safety measures? 

COVID-19 and necessary precautions can directly impact the customer experience. Let’s say you own a massage business. Your value point is self-care and relaxation. What can you do to offer additional value and comfort to your customer to make up for the experience lost to accommodate mask requirements, social distancing standards, personal contact, etc.? 

A great example of retailers identifying their customer supporting channels are those that quickly adopted shopping/pickup services. In this scenario, the retailers saw the direct risk of customers coming into their stores - an every day and previously essential aspect of business. Retailers like Bed Bath and Beyond that adopted same-day delivery as a means to limit in-store traffic, thus protecting employees and customers alike, can identify the channels that directly impact their customer and customer experience. 

4. Catalog Employees and Vendors

Next is catalog your employees and vendors. Understand who your employees, customers, and vendors are, where they come from, and the compliance implications that each brings along with them. COVID guidelines and regulations can vary dramatically by country, state, county, city, and territory. You’ll need to comply with each. Take Kansas City for example. The city of two states. Depending on what part of Kansas City you’re in, you’re facing different levels of state and city regulations to comply with - especially while Kansas City remains under emergency order

As cases of COVID-19 rise in the U.S., some states require mandatory quarantine after travel. Cataloging employees and vendors is essential to planning how you’ll comply with such regulations. If you fulfill a business trip that subsequently requires quarantine, that will need to be accommodated for. Flip the script and you’ll need to be able to trust with certainty that your vendors are properly quarantining and following local regulations before their travel to your business, potentially impacting your facility and workforce. Non-compliance could result in exposing your employees or even legal implications. 

5. Know What Is at Risk 

Understanding your business objectives, risk appetite, and tolerance, channels, and employee and vendor background - and how they work together and support each other - will help you better understand the risk to each. Understanding the relationship between them will help you better assess risk to put in more effective remediation and preventatives measures. 

Since risk to any one of these will affect the others, what’s ultimately put at risk is your value chain. Each of these points supports your value chain and risk to one is risk to all. Not only does it put your value chain at risk, but it also puts your business objectives at risk. 

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