How to manage a phased return to work

by Andy Nguyen
phased return to work

While the COVID-19 pandemic has changed workplace dynamics globally, many businesses are now opening back up. 

If you want to get your employees back to doing their full duties or working from an office, you may face a few challenges. Some employees may look forward to the change, while others may be nervous or unwilling to cooperate. 

A phased return to work may be the solution to this human resources dilemma.

This work plan is usually used after an employee’s long-term absence from the workplace, either because of a period of ill health, maternity leave, or other reasons. 

In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into how you can implement a phased return to work during COVID-19. We’ll also discuss its three key benefits, challenges, and related FAQs

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Let’s begin.

What is a phased return to work?

A phased return to work is a plan that allows your employees to get back to their ‘normal duties’ or ‘full-time jobs’ in phases. 

With this method, you can gradually reintroduce your employees to their usual work routines by making reasonable adjustments to their work plans, such as:

  • Providing flexible work schedules or reduced hours during a workday.
  • Allowing an employee with a disability to work from home.
  • Providing extra training or mentoring to an employee.

These reasonable adjustments are common to all situations of long-term employee absence. However, during a pandemic, your emphasis should also be on workplace safety and employee well-being.

8 key measures for a phased return to work during COVID-19

You must refer to your local and federal guidelines before implementing a phased return to work plan in the current pandemic-induced situation. 

These recommendations can differ based on your geography. For instance, you can follow the Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines if you’re from the USA. 

Additionally, you can take the measures explained below for a successful phased return to work during COVID-19. 

1. Conduct a risk assessment of your workplace

Before carrying out a phased return to work, you must first determine the level of risk your employees will be exposed to at the workplace. 

According to the Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 by the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), businesses can classify the risks their employees are exposed to into three categories:

  • High exposure risk: Usually refers to medical workers and support staff directly exposed to  Coronavirus.
  • Medium exposure risk: Refers to employees in frequent contact with people who may be infected. Public-facing employees such as retail workers, restaurant staff, etc., come under this category.
  • Lower exposure risk: Refers to those who don’t regularly interact with the public. This category includes employees performing remote work, such as freelancers who work from home. 

2. Prepare your workspace

Prepare your office by implementing measures that promote your employees’ hygiene. 

Firstly, it’s essential to educate your employees about safety guidelines and hygiene practices. 

The other measures you can take include:

  • Provide employees with sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Frequently clean high-touch surfaces.
  • Encourage employees to avoid physical touch. 

3. Implement social distancing measures

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends individuals maintain a distance of at least 1 meter to avoid infection.  

To implement this guideline at your workplace, you can:

  • Reduce the number of employees working from the office on a given day.
  • Create adequate space between workstations.
  • Limit the use of elevators, etc.

4. Prioritize employee health

The most effective way to ensure employee health is to make sure your sick employees don’t return to work until they recover completely. 

Some countries may allow you to administer a COVID-19 test and a health screening to employees. Most countries also let you carry out temperature testing before allowing your employees to enter the workplace. 

In the US, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) allows you to carry out COVID-19 tests and lets you ask your employees medical questions. 

Additionally, promoting your employees’ mental health is crucial to their overall well-being. Getting your HR department to implement a fair mental health policy is one way to achieve this.

Read more on how to promote mental health in the workplace 

5. Communicate essential details before your employee’s return

Before your employee returns from their long term absence, you can take the following measures:

  • Stay in touch with your employee and share key company updates.
  • Ask for a fit note from the employee’s doctor.
  • Consider referrals to occupational health services like health examinations, work environment surveillance, etc. 
  • Note the changes you need to make in case of an employee’s physical impediment.
  • Use a phased return to work letter template to document the details of your employee’s work plan.

6. Establish flexible working schedules

Start creating a flexible work plan for employees after discussing it with them. 

Your employees’ early days in the office can be overwhelming. That’s why you must establish a flexible work schedule

The work plan must include changes in their duties, the expected number of working hours or days in a week, and how long the phased return period will last

One way you can give your employees flexibility is by enforcing staggered shifts.

Through these shifts, employees can work on the days that they’re available and gradually build until they’re back to their normal duties.

Read our article on the eight types of flexible work schedules to know more. 

7. Continue supporting employees after they return

After establishing a work plan, hold a return-to-work meeting with your employee to ensure that you understand each other’s expectations. 

Post this, scheduling weekly catch-ups with an employee’s line manager can help review the success of their phased return to work plan. 

Readjusting to a full-time job while recovering from a sickness or other health conditions can be very challenging. That’s why being compassionate with your employees throughout this process is crucial. 

Suppose an employee fails to complete their work schedule successfully. In that case, it’s important to talk to them about reconsidering the length of the phased return to work plan or returning to sickness absence. 

8. Encourage team interactions

While team outings and get-togethers may not be a responsible choice right now, you can get creative with your team-building activities. 

Organizing virtual happy hours is a simple idea to create a positive work environment and bring your team together. These workplace interactions are essential to boost their morale and help team members reconnect with each other. 

3 major benefits of a phased return to work

A phased return to work is designed to help your employees ease back into their regular work schedules. 

Let’s take a closer look at some of its advantages.

1. Saves on costs

According to the Integrated Benefits Institute report, poor employee health conditions cost employers in the USA over 530 billion USD in 2018. It also cost them a total of 1.4 billion workdays due to employee absence. 

Losing capital because of sickness absence is a prevalent challenge across businesses. A phased return to work can help prevent this loss. 


A phased approach allows your employees to work in a limited capacity instead of not working at all. You can prioritize your employees’ health issues without compromising on your costs.

2. Improves retention

Employees will most likely feel uneasy when asked to come back to work after a long-term illness, a maternity leave, or during a pandemic. 

With a gradual return to work approach, they have an adequate period of time to get used to their usual work routines. The staggered work schedule can take away their anxiousness about embracing a heavier workload. 

That’s how a phased return to work gives your employees more reasons to remain associated with your company and positively impacts your employee retention. 

3. Boosts performance

A survey by the American Institute of Stress revealed that 41% of the employees in the US agree that stress leads to loss of productivity. 

Stress management is a challenge for an employee returning to work after an extended period of absence. A phased return to work can help tackle this problem. 

A gradual increase in workload prevents your employees from feeling stressed and uplifts their morale. It’ll encourage your employees to value your business needs and increase their productivity. 

3 challenges of a phased return to work

Like with anything else, a phased return to work comes with its challenges. 

While it can make your employees productive, it can also demand more supervision at your end. 

Let’s have a closer look at some of the challenges of a phased return to work.

1. Difficult to maintain employee safety

Even during a pandemic, it’s impossible to completely prevent or monitor every interaction at work. 

You’ll need to keep a log of each employee’s level of exposure to the virus and ensure that employees with symptoms stay and recover at home. 

While testings and medical questionnaires can help, maintaining the confidentiality and privacy of the employee is challenging. 

2. Barriers in clear communication 

With a phased return to work, one size does not fit all. And personalizing every employee’s work schedule can complicate team collaboration.

Your employees will work in a limited capacity during a phased return to work. Some may work on certain days a week, while others may be available for limited hours every working day. 

Without uniformity in work schedules, it isn’t easy to collaborate on shared tasks and projects. 

3. Dealing with low morale

While managing an employee’s safety and work schedule are challenges you can immediately take on, restoring a positive company culture is a long-term challenge. 

With a phased return to work, it’s difficult to bring your employees together for activities. 

And even if you manage to match the work schedules of employees who work together, current social distancing measures can make it challenging to engage them in activities to boost their morale.  

3 important FAQs about a phased return to work

Still wondering if a phased return to work is the right move for your business?

We’ll answer three important FAQs to help you out. 

1. What is the ideal length of a phased return to work?

A phased return to work can last for a week or two and even go up to several months.

A work plan is most effective when mutually agreed upon by both the employer and the employee.  

You can base your work plan on a doctor’s recommendation, especially in the case of an employee with a long term sickness. A fit note from a doctor can also prompt an early return for your employee.  

2. How much to pay employees during a phased return to work?

During a phased return to work, most employees use what’s remaining of their sick leave entitlement. Since companies worldwide offer their employees sick pay, this is the most natural step they take. 

Employees may also request to use their annual leave to compensate for their absence. 

Some employers may provide their employees with Statutory Sick Pay (SSP). In the UK, for example, the government mandates you to pay an SSP of £96.35 (134.11 USD) per week if your employee is too ill to work for up to 28 weeks.

In the absence of any paid leaves, employers usually pay their employees depending on the hours or days they have worked during the work plan. 

The key is to be transparent with your employees about the effect of a phased return on their full pay.

3. What are the legal implications of a phased return to work?

An employer planning a phased return to work must abide by the employment laws and guidelines issued by public health authorities.

For example, the House of Lords in the UK ruled that an employer can’t dismiss an employee returning to work with a disability. The employer must provide the employee with an alternative duty within the organization. 

Similarly, legal implications vary from one region to another. Carefully consider the ones applicable to your organization before carrying out a phased return to work. 

Wrapping up

Implementing a phased return to work can save costs and make your team productive. More importantly, it allows your team to resume their full duties without feeling overwhelmed by workplace dynamics changes. 

However, a phased return to work can be difficult to manage. You may face challenges with communication and ensuring employee safety during a pandemic. 
Use the tips we covered here to take the necessary measures to help your employees feel confident while returning to a new normal at the workplace.

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