As waves of COVID-19 cross the country and state and local stay-at-home orders are phased in and out (and in again), employers have big decisions to make about not only when employees should return to work, but also how.
COVID-19 has heightened awareness of our health and safety like nothing else in recent memory, and it has left many to worry about the role that their surroundings play in terms of cleanliness and protection. One of the biggest fears that many are facing is the prospect of returning to work mid-COVID-19.
In a CBS News poll, 70% of respondents reported the top national priority should be to “try to slow the spread of coronavirus by keeping people home and social distancing, even if the economy is hurt in the short term.” In essence, the survey reveals a real-time conversation playing out in which many people are left speculating what the return-to-work plans will be in the coming months.
Some employers have already jumped in and called employees back to work, while some have extended work-at-home policies through the end of 2020. There is no one right answer for every employer. But if you do decide to bring employees back, or due to your industry your workplace never closed in the first place, you should be prepared to diligently implement the changing best practices to reduce workers’ exposure to COVID-19 in the coming months, or perhaps even year.
Effectively managing shifting official guidance, employee safety, and business risk during COVID-19 is paramount to the future of your business. Here are a few tips to consider as you plan your safe return to the office.
Prepare for Your Return to Work
There is plenty of work to be done before your employees step inside the office again, including developing or updating your disease preparedness and response plan to establish specific protective actions against COVID-19. Here are points to consider adding to your plan and taking action on before your return date.
- Get the latest information. Stay informed of the latest guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as your state and local health agencies. Medical experts are learning about the Coronavirus weekly, and officials are adjusting policies almost as quickly. Be ready to adjust your plan and workplace protections as needed to meet changing guidelines.
- Update your sick leave policy. Review your sick-leave policy to ensure it is consistent with public health guidelines and that it is flexible enough to meet current needs. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act that was passed March 18, 2020, expanded the Family and Medical Leave Act and included up to 80 hours of emergency sick time for full-time employees affected by COVID-19.
- Establish new workplace rules. Your return to the workplace will come with new rules to prevent the spread of the virus. Changes may include limiting worksite visitors, removal of the coffee station, hand-washing guidelines, a check-in for all employees as they enter the building, social distancing within the office, and a requirement for all employees to wear masks. Figure out what works best for your business within state and local guidelines.
- Consult with your employment attorney. With federal, state, and local COVID-19 guidelines to consider, ensuring you are in compliance can be tricky for even the most seasoned HR professional. After you’ve done your research and established policies, it’s a good idea to have an employment attorney review them to be sure they are aligned with the best legal guidance.
- Make changes to the physical space. Limit close contact among workers by having them work six feet apart, which could mean moving desks, filling every other cubicle, or installing acrylic barriers that prevent the spread of respiratory droplets. Have your HVAC vendor check the office ventilation and increase the amount of outside air that comes into the building.
- Order the necessary equipment. To ensure workers have the proper protections, employers should provide disease prevention tools and equipment such as hand sanitizer, thermometers, gloves, cloth face masks, and cleaning supplies.
- Install the U.S. Department of Labor COVID-19 poster. The U.S. DOL requires that all workplaces post their COVID-19 notice in an area visible to all employees through December 31, 2020.
- Communicate with employees. Stay in touch with your employees regarding your plans to return to the office. As soon as you have the details, share them with all employees and give them enough time to plan for their return. Some employees may need to make child care arrangements, which can be challenging during COVID-19.
Safely Welcome Everyone Back
Now that the preparation work required to return to work is complete, it’s time to focus on welcoming your team members back to the office. Expect a mix of emotions from employees, including excitement at seeing coworkers in-person again and anxiety about the new safety protocols. You may find yourself answering many questions and adjusting plans that appeared perfect on paper but require tweaking in reality.
Once you’re back in the office, we recommend these six actions to complete the transition.
- Conduct safety training for all employees. Employees should undergo safety training on how to self-monitor for symptoms and identify possible exposure as well as how to participate in keeping themselves and their coworkers safe and the office sanitized.
- Require sick employees to stay home. Encouraging employees to stay home if they are sick is a critical measure that employers must take to safeguard all employees working in the office. The CDC recommends that anyone who is suspected of or has contracted COVID-19 should remain home 24 hours after recovery (which is defined as no fever without the use of medication), at least ten days have passed since symptoms first appeared, and other symptoms have improved. Employees who test positive for COVID-19 but have no symptoms may discontinue isolation 10 days after the test.
- Abide by privacy laws. If someone does become sick in the office, employers should practice discretion and keep the employee's name strictly confidential. Employers are responsible for informing the office that a coworker tested positive for the disease, but should not disclose any identities.
- Create a safety committee. To specifically address the challenges of working in an office during COVID-19, form a committee that is made up of employees from different departments – such as upper management, HR, and IT - and hold weekly meetings to discuss things like the latest guidance and how current policies are working. Hold company-wide meetings to communicate with all personnel and receive feedback on how the company is handling workforce safety, and provide an opportunity for them to convey their personal feelings about how the return to work is going.
- Sanitize the office regularly. Sanitize office surfaces each night after employees leave for the day using procedures and cleaners recommended by the CDC. Encourage employees to use disinfectant after using copiers, fridge handles, and other high-touch surfaces. If a worker tests positive for the virus, follow CDC guidelines, including close the office for a day and complete a deep cleaning of all surfaces.
- Visit OSHA and CDC websites often. Check federal guidance on workplace safety weekly and adjust your in-office behaviors and protections as best practices change.
Prepare to Be Flexible
Throughout the process of planning for a safe return and making the necessary office adjustments, you will need to remain flexible to respond to outliers and changes over time. Not every change will be easy to plan for, but here’s what we’ve already seen.
- Be ready to return to remote work. We’ve already seen city and state opening policies reversing as virus cases increase. Expect that after you’ve returned to the office, you may need to ask employees to return to remote work again. Assess any issues encountered during your first switch to working from home and remove some of the roadblocks to make a second return easier to manage and reduce business interruptions.
- Create flexible work schedules. As a way to maintain more flexibility for employees in scheduling, the CDC recommends to "allow employees to shift their hours so they can commute during less busy times." Additionally, to reduce close contact with other employees in common areas like break rooms and bathrooms, employees should "stagger shifts, start times, and break times."
- Don’t get comfortable with the new normal. There are a lot of references to a new normal online and in the media. We’re getting used to wearing masks, watching the official virus numbers go up and down, missing our favorite restaurants, and more. But the global pandemic is a fast-moving crisis that will continue to affect employers for months, both in ways we can anticipate and in ways we have not yet considered. Mentally prepare for uncertainty over the next several months and keep asking yourself what the next normal could look like.
Look to the Future
The continuing challenge for employers is to operate within the uncertainty of the global pandemic while also maintaining the health and safety of employees. For those returning to work, proper planning, in-office adjustments, and flexibility can make the transition easier and safer for everyone.
COVID-19 has already required employers to make many adjustments to how business gets done. While it’s difficult to predict what comes next, history has shown that businesses that adapt to challenges create new opportunities moving forward.
For additional information on returning to work safely, OSHA provides in-depth guidelines for reducing exposure risks in the workplace, and the CDC has specific office building guidelines.
For information on growing through the challenges of COVID-19, read How Workplaces Will Build Resilience Through COVID-19.