Returning to Work After COVID-19
INTRODUCTION AND PURPOSE
Working from home has become more than a benefit for almost all office workers. We’ve seen wave after wave of change: first transitioning to working from home, then leading remote teams successfully, then success techniques for setting boundaries and staying connected. Now our clients are looking at the how, when, who, and why of returning to their offices.
Short-Term Plans, Long-Term Implications
The decision to go to the office in 2019 was an unconscious routine. When we can return to the office in 2020 (or 2021), it will be a conscious decision, actively discussed and deliberated with colleagues and family members.
How you treat your people today and in their return to work will determine if, and for how long, they decide to stay with your organization. Ask them to do something risky or unsafe, and they are more likely to leave. Fail to demonstrate how you are attending to their health and safety, and they will not re-enter the building. Your employment and recruiting brand will be, to varying degrees, determined in this decision, this plan, and this approach. Here are some things to consider as you devise that plan.
HEALTHY WORK PRACTICES
Emotions and Reactions
Organizations will need to ensure their employees see their efforts to create a physically and psychologically safe workplace. Some key factors:
- Keep them safe and healthy – and let that drive decisions on ‘when’ and ‘who’ returns to the office.
- Provide a space to share and listen to each other, especially early on as they go through another new change in learning how to work in the office together again.
- Remain flexible with schedules and work location.
- Ensure your executives, managers and supervisors understand their role in helping make for a smooth and successful transition to working from the office and setting clear expectations around behavior.
- Provide awareness of mental health challenges and communicate how to easily access support resources.
Physical Spaces – Social distancing protocols and guidelines
Physical space is still one of the best protections against community spread. Visibly adapting workplace rules to stagger work hours, locations, employee placement, employee-customer distancing, flexible meetings, limited travel, downsizing operations, remote service delivery, and curbside pick-up or delivery. Simply limiting the number of people in any one space will be needed in the near-term.
Facilities changes will be required. This will include things like upgrading filtration systems, increasing ventilation rates, portable/desk air purifiers, increase of outdoor air that circulates into the system, disinfecting wipes, going paperless completely, changing rules around conference room attendance, reducing conference room occupancy levels, direction of people traffic, hands-free doors, seating arrangements, food delivery, etc.
While different people may have different perceptions about COVID-19 response and risk, the organization must be consistent in its policy, and constructive in correcting behavior.
Create policies and procedures to reduce the spread of COVID 19 and educate employees on disinfecting equipment, assessing symptoms, or proceeding if someone in their household falls ill.
Provide guidance on how to engage an employee who does not follow the new safety and distancing protocols will be important. Adjusting your employment policy to address these new safety requirements will also be needed.
Create consistent processes and protocols for health screening questionnaires and temperature screenings. They must be used with all employees regardless of age, organizational level, gender, ethnicity, etc. Under the EEOC, it must be shown that there is a business necessity to prevent harm because temperature checks are considered a medical examination under ADA. Employers can outsource this process or train their team to do so safely with consistent equipment and protective gear. Creating a private area for screenings is highly recommended to avoid violation of HIPAA regulations and spread of paranoia and anxiety. Results should be kept for at least three months in a secure location, separate from official employee files.
Possible Employer Provided Testing
Employers could provide RT-PCR (reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction) testing at work, granting employers safe harbor from liability. RT-PCR measures viral RNA levels in a patient’s nasal secretions, detecting active infections.
Masks are necessary to prevent transmission through respiratory droplets. Cloth masks do not have filtering capabilities. Surgical masks have a waterproof component containing respiratory droplets. N95 masks have the ability to filter 95% of non-oil based particulate matter. If employers require the use of a mask, they need to develop a respiratory protection program including instructions on the use, storage, care, and maintenance of masks, per OSHA regulations. If it’s voluntary, the requirements are different depending on local, state, and federal guidelines. Check OSHA and CDC guidelines for base requirements.
Our perception is that PPE will become like badges. Both are for the safety and security of the employees. Many offices require badges for entry. Many of our clients see PPE and personal cleaning kits (wipes, hand sanitizer, etc.) as required for entry – as long as distancing remains a key strategy against community spread.
Determine how to operate with high absenteeism or if the organization needs to shift their services, products, and business model. Many employees will not want to return to work right away. In the past, managers had discretion/power about their teams working from home. We see that choice moving more to the employee. Many of our clients have indicated that they expect to see many of their employees requesting to work from home in the near-term. Many of our clients will be requesting that their employees work from home unless they have a significant need to be in the office.
Use regular and heightened housekeeping practices. This includes cleaning and disinfecting commonly used surfaces, shared spaces, and common areas such as break room areas and equipment, microwaves, water coolers, coffee makers, etc. Use products that meet EPA criteria.
Provide employees with basic cleaning supplies, and encourage them to disinfect their personal work areas regularly.
When exposed or diagnosed individuals are identified, their work space needs to be closed for 24 hours prior to commencing cleaning to disperse and eliminate possible contaminated respiratory droplets.
Implement flexible sick leave and supportive policies and practices to care for employees and their families (due to illness or lack of childcare). Additional flexibility may include providing advances on sick leave, allowing employees to donate sick leave to each other, and granting emergency sick leaves. Waive COVID-19 test results as a condition for leave approval.
It is important to purposefully reintegrate employees who are presumed positive or get diagnosed with COVID-19. It may be a good policy to have them obtain medical notes stating that they do not pose any risks of transmission to individuals in the workforce (discharge papers, doctor’s notes, fitness for duty, etc).
Those with underlying health conditions that make them high risk of severe illness if they were to contract COVID-19, require accommodations, leave, and access to protective gear. Employers should honor requests or engage in interactive processes. Be prepared to offer leave of up to two weeks of paid time off and up to 12 weeks of FMLA.
Your work force’s return must be gradual with less risky groups and most important sectors returning first. Return to work may depend on their pre-existing health, their exposure to confirmed cases, and presumptive positive or presumed positive – those with symptoms but without testing confirmation.
Many of our clients are opting to use a voluntary system at first when they reopen their offices. Deferring decision making and choice to the employee will help avoid some of the issues and concerns with returning to work. The smaller population also gives organizations an opportunity to test new procedures, policies, equipment, and resources. Having a test group that can rapidly learn and adjust to new practices increases the actual and perceived safety for those who are more reluctant to return to the office.
Once you announce your reopening plan and timing, expect employees to take some vacation time, if they have it. Sheltering at home has kept people at home. As governments loosen those restrictions, many people will opt to simply get away to somewhere else (not their home and not their office). Simply be aware that your work force will have the need to get some well earned time off and accommodate that in your reopening plan.
Government agencies that provide important guidance for employers: