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Preparing to return to work in uncertain times

May 06, 2020

By Bre Streinz and Andrea Sodahl

Returning employees to work after COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders begin to lift will not be an easy flip of the switch or business as usual. 

The recommended approach for most employers will be a gradual reopening with a focus on bringing back important or essential functions that cannot be done from home. 

Restarting your business operations and generating revenue is top of mind. However, demonstrating genuine care for your employees’ health, safety and wellbeing will yield a sense of security and contribute to increased productivity among them. The time and resources invested in creating security for your employees will not only produce valuable results in the short term but also create lasting trust and dedication. 

Returning to work: How to start preparing

Before employees begin returning to work onsite, you must address a range of critical issues created from the coronavirus — including recognizing and communicating to employees that there will be a new normal. You’ll want to manage the varying levels of concern among employees. You will likely see individuals who are eager to return and others who may be more hesitant. You may also see employees who want to take every precaution available while working and others who may be comfortable working with minimal protective actions. It will be critical to recognize and respect these varying levels of employee concern while also being clear and consistent about what is expected.

When evaluating the best approach for getting employees back to work, take into consideration the quantity and frequency of interaction with others required to perform the job. Take stock of varying levels of necessary interaction/exposure by employees, as well as identify opportunities to limit contact where possible. Then set priorities for which changes will be most critical and impactful.

Questions to ask may include:

  • Is an individual interacting with members of the public or just a set number of coworkers?
  • Are they regularly interacting with vendors or visitors?
  • Are they in a shared workspace or a private office?
  • Is travel typically part of the employee’s job responsibilities?
  • Are there high-risk employees returning to the workplace who may need reasonable accommodations?
  • What are federal, state and local recommendations and requirements for bringing employees back?

There are various workplace controls to consider and policies, procedures and practices to build around in order to bring back employees and customers safely, including:

1. Physical controls

These are mechanical methods of creating a safer workplace environment.

Installing air-filtration systems in workspaces or using physical barriers to help prevent concentration of employees are impactful physical methods of creating a safer workspace. If your employees have a role where they are encountering customers frequently, installing sneeze guards would be a valuable preventative to aid in their protection.

If possible, rearrange workstations or evaluate how to move employees around so that workspaces are at least six feet apart. Employers can also place tape on the floor in common hallways or around desks as a visual cue for what six feet apart looks like so they can more easily adhere to that distance.

If your organization regularly interacts with members of the public, plan for what requirements or restrictions you will have for those entering your place of business. Customers are already seeing significant changes in the way essential businesses are operating, so they will likely expect similar modifications as other businesses are allowed to reopen.

2. Interpersonal/behavioral controls

These are methods to address human behavior and assist in changing normal routines to reduce the risk of exposure. 

Place limitations on how many individuals can be in a conference room at one time and suggest minimal use of the break room or other general common areas. Create recommended paths for employees to get to restrooms, the water cooler, etc. to manage traffic flow and reduce congested hallways. Limit or eliminate communal food and drink.

Continuing to practice social distancing while returning to work will be important to help prevent exposure. Rotate schedules, implement split teams, stagger the workforce or continue telecommuting for some of the workforce — these are all methods to explore that will aid in adjusting interpersonal behavior to more easily adhere to social distancing.

If travel is typically part of an employee’s role, be aware of continued federal, state and local travel restrictions/recommendations and put a plan in place for phasing that aspect of their role back in. Include degree of necessity, distance/duration traveled, and mode of travel in your plan, as well as ways to address the risks travel may introduce into your workforce upon employees’ return.

3. Personal protective controls

Establish safety expectations for individuals while in the workplace. Provide hand sanitizer for employees and disinfecting products for workspaces. Encourage regular cleaning and set expectations about frequency and who is responsible for which areas. Continue communication around good hygiene practices by washing hands regularly, covering one’s mouth while coughing, etc. Provide and/or encourage the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the workplace. Masks, gloves, head caps, protective eye wear, etc. are all options to aid in protecting your employees.

Put a plan and policy in place around the use of PPE so employees and customers are clear on what is expected of them.  

4. COVID-19 symptom monitoring/testing

Under EEOC guidelines, employers can also implement temperature or symptom checks and conduct employee testing for COVID-19 to reduce the transmission of the virus. Ensure testing is job-related and consistent with business necessity. There are many requirements and risk factors to be aware of before implementing these policies, and employers may wish to seek legal counsel before proceeding.

Stay informed of federal, state and local requirements

All of the above-mentioned topics will have varying degrees of legislative requirements across the country and world. For example, some states are requiring individuals to wear masks at all times, whereas others are not. It is important to stay informed of the ever-changing requirements to ensure continued compliance in the communities you operate in. The CDC, as well as state and territorial health department websites, can be great resources to stay informed.

The CARE approach

Unfortunately, the best laid plans don’t always work and may need to evolve. Communicate to employees that this is a fluid situation, and leadership is monitoring how the new workplace efforts are playing out. Managing the expectations of employees is critical. This approach recognizes that the work environment will continue to evolve. Timely communications will be key today and moving forward.

Use a Communicate-Acknowledge-Reassess-Evolve (CARE) approach to bring employees back.

Communicate-Acknowledge-Reassess-Evolve (CARE) approach

Need more help with COVID-19 issues?

We’re here to help you navigate the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on your people, finances and business. We have developed a library of resources in our COVID-19 resource center to help you stabilize today and prepare for tomorrow. We also have solutions that can help you manage your people strategy, operations, business finances and technology. We’re here to help. Contact us today.

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Andrea Sodahl
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