Bain's Bao-Viet Lê on return to work considerations

01 July 2020 7 min. read

Around the world, a majority of workers express enthusiasm or relief about the prospect of returning to their normal workplaces. But according to Bao-Viet Lê, Partner, a partner at Bain & Company, getting people back to work successfully requires an integrated approach, one that goes beyond just employee considerations. 

For leadership teams, the recovery from the Covid-19-induced downturn will mean restarting and in some cases, reinventing operations in an unstable world of shifting conditions. The leading companies will be defined by their ability to balance resilience, adaptability and prediction.

But this recovery won’t follow a straight line, so executives should get used to thinking about it dynamically. The plan of action for recovery should be: advance, retreat, adapt, repeat. The companies that can protect their people and build the most experience with real agility will create a competitive advantage and accelerate faster out of the downturn. 

Back to work: A question of demand and supply

Willing workers are a critical component of the recovery, but companies can’t just turn the lights back on and hand out masks at the door to a returning workforce. For most executives, the task at hand is less like restarting a business than like starting a business. Back to work requires a coordinated approachOnly by first understanding the demand side of the equation can executives gauge their workforce needs and the urgency of returning different groups of workers to their jobs and work sites. This starts with evaluating customer demand by product or service and geography, and assessing the abilities of suppliers and distributors to support that demand.

And that number will be radically different today than it would have been before Covid-19 thrust us into a forced experiment in working more efficiently and effectively. Nor will the number of employees returning to work grow in a steady upward line. Companies must return people to work in phases, aiming to increase their numbers over time, but equally ready to shrink them – perhaps drastically – when setbacks occur.

With the crisis breaking apart business systems, setting up agile teams is the most effective and scalable way to adjust and build resiliency into fluid operational environments. Local teams, guided by non-negotiable safety requirements, will learn and respond to conditions on the ground, continuously adapting, putting solutions in place and reporting successes to leaders who can scale them across the business. 

Companies will constantly adjust priorities and resources between the teams that are advancing and those suddenly forced to retreat. This is the very definition of agile. 

The workforce you need

Tracking real demand provides companies with a rational way to determine how many people need to return to work and where. But understanding the workforce they need – and who needs to return to a work site – is just the beginning of the recovery challenge. The top question every company faces is how to keep those employees safe in a constantly changing environment and how to mitigate the risks they face if they return to work. 

This assumes, not incidentally, that they can get there. Even if stay-at-home orders are lifted, workers may face impossible childcare or commuting choices if schools remain closed or transportation is limited or unavailable in their communities.

Likewise, companies have little ability to mitigate virus risk in the community where their workers live. Cities aren’t likely to progress continuously toward recovery. A local outbreak that returns a city or country to an earlier phase may force an entire wave of a workforce to retreat despite the best of workplace protections.

Here again, companies that respond with resilience and agility – advancing one wave in a city or different part of the world even while withdrawing another wave from an affected community – will accelerate most quickly through the recovery. 

What does this all look like on the ground? For companies, returning employees physically to work means identifying and mitigating workplace risk. And they must do so in ways that build trust among employees. A retail store clerk may have hundreds of different contacts with customers throughout a day and touch thousands of items that customers have touched. By contrast, a factory worker on a line may handle many components and surfaces but have very few, if any, physical interactions with co-workers.

Offices can dramatically reduce social contact by continuing work-from-home policies for all but essential personnel, but even these seemingly more controlled environments have pockets of high risk that must be addressed – elevators, for example, have quickly emerged as major chokepoints for office buildings.

“Returning to work does not mean returning to the old ways of doing things.”
– Bao-Viet Lê, Partner at Bain & Company

Mitigating individual worker risk

With the exception of testing, companies have already adopted the safety measures they view as most important, including personal protective equipment, physical distancing and disinfectant sprays and wipes.

Although all of these risk-mitigation responses have the goal of protecting individual employees, many are fraught with legal and ethical questions. Screening and testing workers will be essential, and most workers will likely find that first line of defence comforting. 

Yet it will also raise complex privacy issues. While the coronavirus discriminates among its victims, there are no employment laws that allow the same in the name of safety. For example, older men returning to their jobs may be at greater risk than, say, young women. Likewise, the virus itself has created a new class of recovered workers who could be more immune, and at lower risk, than their coworkers. 

Screening customers presumes that they’ll be treated differently – even potentially denied service – if they appear to have symptoms of Covid-19. Lawmakers are unlikely to move quickly enough to clear up the thorny questions that will arise. Companies will need to collaborate closely on these issues with their unions and will need swift and risk-weighted support from their general counsel and chief human resources officer. 

Leading the movement back to work

Ultimately, though, returning to work is a moment of truth for leaders and will be defined by trust. For employees, trust starts with both being safe and feeling safe, perception will be important along with the mitigation of real risks. In workplaces that include customers, this will be equally true for them.

Trust is also essential for returning to work. Make no mistake: The safety of workers and the future of the business requires that some rules be strictly enforced from the top down, with no exceptions, for the foreseeable future. 

But as soon as it’s practical, leaders can empower their frontline managers to deal with local issues as they arise. This requires that workers get the training and psychological support they need to embrace, maintain and self-enforce safe behaviour at all times. And companies can reinforce that trust and build agility by developing feedback loops to quickly deliver best practices developed on the front lines in one workplace to the rest of the organization. These feedback loops also demonstrate to employees that they are heard and play a critical role in reducing risk for their fellow workers.

Going back to work is necessary for recovery, and also moves the company closer to retooling for a new normal. With the future in mind, returning to work does not mean returning to the old ways of doing things. Most companies won’t fundamentally change direction because of Covid-19, but the crisis has dramatically accelerated the speed at which they are traveling and how they navigate the journey. That may be the definition of a silver lining.