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A 4-Phase Framework for Returning to the Office

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Katie Cavanaugh
Published on

“So, when will we be back in the office?” 

Since stay-at-home orders were put in place mid-March 2020, it seems the question on everyone’s mind is when we’re allowed back in the office.

As the response to COVID-19 continues to unfold across the country, one thing is certain: getting back into the office won’t happen as rapidly as getting out did. 

There’s a lot for workplace teams to think through to responsibly account for safety measures and employee comfort for any back-to-office strategy. Starting at the federal level then trickling down into state and local jurisdictions, it’s clear the popular framework for returning to the office is a gradual, phased approach.

The federal task force kicked things off in April with the three phases of “Reopening America”. States followed suit with their own versions like Massachusett’s four-phased reopening structure.

So what’s next? Your company’s approach.

Planning your back-to-the-office strategy? Talk to a workplace expert today

What a phased approach to reopening a workplace looks like: 

Based on the national and local guidelines, we mapped out a four-phased approach for returning to any office. (We plan to use this framework to reopen our Boston office over the coming months). 

four-phased approach diagram for reopening the workplace

What to consider for each phase:  


  • Fully remote: Most organizations have been in this phase since mid-March. Most employees are working from home (WFH) and only a few essential members come into the office to check in on the facility.
  • Gathering employee feedback: Feedback gathered through, employee experience surveys, virtual town hall meetings, and 1:1s will be used by the workplace team to strategize the following phases in our return plan.

Phase 1: Essentials

  • Essential people return to the office: Workplace team members and other facilities-focused members of the team will return to the office and prepare for the greater team’s return.
  • Strict social distancing measures: For those few in office, they’ll practice stringent social distancing at all times for common areas, desks, and in meetings.
  • Strict sanitation policies: Organizations should have sanitation stations and strict health and safety policies for the entire office. Employees will be expected to wear PPEs.
  • Remote work first: People who can work from home still should and will not be expected in office until phase two at the earliest. At this point, the workplace team will still focus on making sure people are comfortable and productive in their WFH setups.
  • Minimal travel: No business sanctioned travel.

Phase 2: Pioneers

  • Remote work encouraged: The majority of employees will still WFH.
  • Pilot groups:  Teams or eager groups of people will be reintroduced in shifts to test out new policies and layouts. 
  • Focus on physical distancing and sanitation: In this phase expect physical distancing and strict disinfecting and sanitation.
  • Pack your bags: Non-essential travel can resume, though many organizations will continue to host external events virtually and won’t encourage personal travel.

Phase 3: Flexible Majority

  • A mix of in-office and remote work is normal: WFH will be a “no-questions” asked option until September or later. In this phase, managers should coordinate with their team to determine when people want to work from home or come into the office.
  • Team shifts: Since the office won’t be at full capacity in this phase, those coming into the office will use shifts for teams to take turns in and out of office.
  • Looser physical distancing and sanitation: In this phase, physical distancing and cleaning policies will be more relaxed than in prior phases.

Phase 4: New Normal

  • The workplace reopened: Everyone can work in the office together again. Welcome visitors and interviewees. 
  • Business as unusual: According to the national and local guidelines organizations can open our office without restrictions in this phase. Organizations will have reached this phase through iteration and through employee feedback. If they’re not ready, they can return to earlier phases before reopening completely.

Benefits of using a phased approach to reopening the office 

COVID-19 has proven challenging in so many ways. One pervasive sentiment associated with the pandemic is how things feel like they’re moving too quickly and too slowly at the same time. Staying at home and being patient is so tough. Anxiety around reopening too soon and the potential backlash from that halt people in their tracks.  

Here’s how phases as a guiding framework for returning to an office acts as a “just right” Goldilocks solutions because it anchors around each unique company and what their people need. 

1. Dates not necessary

Phases are a flexible framework that can shift over time as we hear more guidelines from our national and local governments. Once a company has successfully and safely gone through phase one, they can move to phase two, and so on. That way, progress isn’t time-based but based on actual workplace readiness.

2. Employee choice comes first

Phases give people an idea of what their workplace will look like over time. Because organizations will need to slowly ramp up capacity to abide by physical distancing and safety guidelines, employees won’t come back all at once and likely won’t want to. Some people may be eager to get back into the office while others may prefer working remotely as long as possible.

Each employee should think through their own personal considerations, work styles, and responsibilities to get an idea of when it would make the most sense for them to return. Using employee experience surveys is a great way for workplace teams to understand company-wide preferences and plan out who can and should come back and when.

3. Opportunity for iteration

Not only do you move forward in phases once you’re ready, but you can also revert to an earlier phase if something isn’t working well. Getting back into the office won’t be a “set it and forget it” process. It’ll take time and constant feedback to know what physical distancing, people flow, signage, safety procedures, and more are ideal for your that specific company.

For more resources on workplace readiness in the wake of COVID-19, check out our hub.

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