With the U.S. making some progress in “flattening the curve” of COVID-19, it’s time for employers to plan their return to the workplace. The most critical step: ensuring employees feel safe coming into the office, warns a recent study.

Mercer says companies can learn a great deal from the experiences of employers of essential workers who have remained at their worksites throughout the pandemic. Nearly half (45 percent) of those employers surveyed have had issues with employees not coming to work because they are afraid of getting sick.

“The fact that so many employers have reported issues with employees not coming to worksites due to fear of becoming ill underscores that the first priority is to develop a comprehensive plan to keep employees safe at work,” said Dr. David Zieg, Mercer’s clinical services leader. “The second priority is to clearly communicate this plan to employees so as to allay their fears.”

The most important safety consideration is to ensure employees can maintain adequate distancing in the workplace. This could mean fewer employees in a worksite at a given time. In fact, the majority of survey respondents (63 percent) are considering “staggered returns” as they plan their return to the workplace, with measures such as having employees whose last names start with A-M working on certain days and N-Z working other days. Some employers (44 percent) are planning to create smaller work groups to limit the mixing of employees in the workplace at the same time.

Only about one-third (35 percent) of respondents planning their return say they will conduct COVID-19 screening and assessments on-site, most commonly with temperature screenings or by administering a symptom questionnaire. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) say they will provide employees with masks. However, finding enough masks to purchase may be a challenge.

What happens when social distancing guidelines are removed? More than one-third (38 percent) of respondents say they will allow employees to continue to work virtually in the short-term and return to the workplace when deemed safe. Some employees (8 percent) plan to allow most employees to continue working virtually as much as possible, regardless of social distancing rules, while 5 percent will require all employees to return to the workplace as soon as the rules are lifted.