Photos of business owners who have created a plan for employees to return to their worksite.

How businesses can reopen offices and return to worksites in 3 careful stages

Spring 2020 could be called the Great Emptying as offices and other workplaces went dark during the pandemic’s initial wave.

A majority of employed Americans have been working from home—62% according to a recent Gallup survey, a figure that doubled from mid-March to early April. Even if the rate of remote working continues to boom, many business owners will face the tricky management job of mapping out how some or all their employees return to the worksite.


Graphic stating that 62% of Americans are working from home.
Graphic stating that 41% of employeees would like to return to the worksite.

“You probably didn’t have a business continuity plan written for sending nearly everybody home,” says Kevin Farley, vice president of enterprise worksite services for Principal®. “I don’t think anybody did.”

As a business owner, maybe you’d like to start bringing your employees back. Or maybe you’re wondering why you should, considering rampant predictions about the “end of the office” as we know it.

The reality is that many workers still are counting on it. The Gallup survey also found 41% of those currently working from home eventually would like to return to their worksites.

What’s more, you’re part of a business community that relies on its neighbors to sustain a thriving local economy. Workers populating metro downtowns and other business districts help support an interconnected network—restaurants, retail, and an endless variety of services.

So here’s how you can build your own return-to-worksite plan. We developed this “Return-to-worksite checklist” (PDF) according to when, how, and who—following a gradual timeline in three stages (not to be confused with the federal government’s “three-phased approach” to reopening the nation).

Use it as inspiration to create your own.



These stages aren’t necessarily a one-way road. Depending on local infection rates or other factors, you may need to move back a stage or two and restore restrictions to keep your employees safe.

Icon of a calendar. When

When analyzing COVID-19 data to make the best decisions based on public-health projections, track the running seven-day average of infection rate to clarify a steady trend and filter out the noise of volatile daily statistics, Farley says. Use reliable sources such as worldometers.info or Johns Hopkins University.

One business leader and Principal client, with both rural and urban offices, recently asked during an interview on worksite reopening: Can we send our employees back to the worksite in good faith if they rely on a train or other mass transit?

Include these complicated factors—some beyond your direct control— in your return-to-worksite checklist.

Icon of gears. How

Nearly every business must restrict or otherwise direct traffic flow to ensure less risk of virus spread. That may mean the open floorplans and shared desks of the trendy modern office are history.

A retailer can direct shoppers one way through aisles and mandate socially distanced checkout lines. Office lobbies can remove coffee-table books or snacks to reduce common surfaces.

But routine virus testing or contact tracing at work are more elaborate steps that not even major employers have fully figured out. Monitor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other sources for guidance.

Icon of people. Who

Worksites won’t repopulate as fast as they were vacated. Prioritize crucial staff and then also offer a stage when return to the worksite is voluntary.

From there, try things like splitting teams or shifts to reduce worksite density.

An acknowledgement agreement (Word) for employees, customers, and visitors to sign could be a useful resource to help protect your worksite against reinfection. It raises awareness of risk factors and helps remind everybody to take all necessary precautions.

Next steps

1 Gallup “U.S. Workers Discovering Affinity for Remote Work,” April 3, 2020

Reference of checklist is not an exhaustive list of what you should do. It, the agreement and this communication are provided as education only with the understanding that Principal® is not rendering legal, accounting, investment advice, or tax advice. You should consult with appropriate counsel or other advisors on all matters pertaining to legal, tax, investment, or accounting obligations and requirements.

Insurance products and plan administrative services provided through Principal Life Insurance Co., a member of the Principal Financial Group®, Des Moines, IA 50392.