White Paper

The Challenge of Returning to Work and School

As organizations begin to resume operations, leaders look to keep workers, students and customers safe.
by: Marisa Dourlain |

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over, but many businesses, schools and organizations are looking to return to operations. The challenge in returning to work and to school is to protect public health while bringing colleagues, customers and learning communities back together. 

As they do so, leaders must address two priorities: preventing sick people from coming in contact with healthy people and destroying the virus wherever possible. A new set of technology solutions has emerged to help organizations achieve these aims, and they typically can be supported by existing IT infrastructure.

Unfamiliar Terrain

As businesses, organizations and institutions create their “return to work” and “return to school” plans, leaders are confronting new scenarios — and new solutions — that are, in many cases, unfamiliar. 

Indeed, in many organizations, long-term remote operations may not even be an option. In a McKinsey survey of executives, 40 percent said that permanent remote work was not possible for the vast majority of their employees. Moreover, many employees require childcare to return to work — 27 million Americans, according to the American Community Survey — a dilemma that necessitates effective, large-scale strategies to resume both work and educational activities in person.

Technology vendors have quickly stepped up to address these needs, developing new solutions and repurposing existing ones to facilitate a safe resumption of onsite work and learning. Yet this massive influx of technologies also poses a challenge, as leaders must determine the right solutions for their environments, deploy them for optimal effect, and train employees in new policies and procedures.

Meanwhile, leaders in nearly every industry continue to manage the pandemic’s extraordinary impacts on the economy.


The percentage of organizations that plan to reduce the number of employees onsite at one time as a practice to limit contact during the COVID-19 pandemic

Source: McKinsey, “How US companies are planning for a safe return to the workplace,” June 2020

Pervasive Impact

At the macro level, the pandemic’s global effect has been drastic: a 5.2 percent contraction in this year’s GDP, according to World Bank projections. In the United States, beginning in March, household spending fell by approximately 50 percent overall, but especially in the restaurant, retail, travel and transportation sectors.

U.S. unemployment has averaged 10.5 percent across industries, with staggering highs in sectors such as leisure and hospitality (25 percent), oil and gas (15.6 percent), and transportation and utilities (13.8 percent). Some estimates project that it will be 2022 before employment recovery takes hold. Small to midsize businesses have been hit especially hard, with declining revenue and a greater likelihood of reporting reduced headcount. For many SMBs, temporary closures may become permanent. 

Research indicates that women and low-income workers have borne the brunt of these effects. Workers without a college degree, for example, were four times more likely to experience a loss of employment. Research also suggests that stay-at-home restrictions have led to a wave of early retirements, pushing older individuals out of the workforce sooner than planned. 

The education sector continues to reel, with this fall’s first back-to-school and back-to-campus attempts leading to rapid infection spikes among students. Higher education, which faced financial pressures before the pandemic, is now being challenged to justify high tuition as students receive, at best, blended instruction combining online and face-to-face instruction. K–12 education, as a whole, lacks a coordinated direction, with each district forced to determine (and experiment with) its own strategy.

The healthcare industry, which leveraged technology to adapt quickly to the needs and the limits of the pandemic, may be a useful beacon for other fields. Hospitals and other health facilities have already deployed many of the tools other organizations can now use to reopen safely.

All these shifts, of course, will continue to reverberate in ways that are difficult to predict. What leaders do know is they must find ways to adapt, to carry on the important work of business and education, and to do so in ways that allow them to protect health, pursue financial recovery or stabilization, and achieve organizational objectives — simultaneously. 

The challenge is that most organizations lack a clear blueprint for how to manage all of these essential objectives. As the world moves toward the one-year mark on the pandemic, developing such a blueprint is a must. Long-term pauses on commerce, education and services are neither feasible nor realistic. Moreover, even when this pandemic is contained, many public health experts see a growing risk of new pandemics in the future. 

Preparing for these outcomes — and determining how best to mitigate risks so that business and learning can continue — is now part of the leadership responsibility in every industry. Organizations must navigate this landscape with the mindset that, with the right tools and procedures in place, it is possible to safely work and learn together.

To learn more about how to get back to work safely, read the CDW white paper “Getting Back: How to Enable the New Normal.”