At the start of 2020, the acronym ‘WFH’ (Working from Home) was unfamiliar to many office-based workers, this soon changed when the United States was hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with the word even earning itself a place in the Oxford English Dictionary. As businesses quickly adopted flexible working practices, the ‘work from home’ concept enabled millions of workers to continue working from the safety of their own homes.
The disruption caused by the pandemic is far from over and workplace cultures will not return to what they were pre-pandemic, at least not for a long time. Despite this, the time has come for many businesses across the country to start thinking about safe ways to transition back to office life. As no two businesses are the same, some may opt to bring back only a handful of employees to the office environment, some may have employees on rotation and some may even bring the whole workforce back in. Regardless, the real question that remains is, is your business ready? We have put together five questions to ask yourself when preparing to bring your employees back into the workplace.
1.) Has community transmission slowed down dramatically?
First and foremost, you must ask yourself, is the office based within a community where orders on lockdown have been lifted significantly? If the answer is yes, you’re already on the right path! Be sure to bear in mind that flare ups of coronavirus are happening across the country and you must be prepared for the reintroduction of lockdown measures at any given time. If transmission has slowed down to the point that you’re bringing employees back into the workplace, make sure you pay close attention to what governors and the mayor of your city or state are saying. This will vary on a case by case basis as many businesses will have various offices across a state or even across the whole country.
2.) Which employees should return to the workplace first?
Most workplaces will take a staggered approach, bringing employees back into the office over a period of weeks or months, depending on how big the workforce is and if safety measures implemented in the office are showing signs that they are working. Avoiding full-office occupancy will make social distancing less of a challenge and will allow ‘high risk’ employees to remain protected. Although it will ultimately be down to the management teams to decide who returns to the office first, it is recommended that those in the ‘high risk’ category continue to work from home where possible or until community transmission levels are virtually at zero.
It is also suggested that employees with no childcare options available to them should be one of the last groups to return to office life, unless their presence within the office is vital. Again, if it is not vital for employees who use public transport to travel to work to be in the office environment, it is suggested that they work from home until the later stages of bringing people back. A longer commute, especially on public transport, will increase the likelihood of contracting COVID-19 and bringing it into the work environment.
3.) Has the office environment been suitably restructured in accordance with COVID-19 regulations?
Once it has been decided who will be brought back to the office, you need to ensure your office space is safe for everyone, complying with federal, state and local directives. The chances are that you will need to create a new office layout, including adequately spaced-out desks and plenty of signage to ensure everyone is keeping the correct distance from one another at all times, this may even mean a return to cubicle-style working where partitions or dividers are put up between desks to minimize the spread of droplets and aerosols.
Regardless of how many employees you are planning on taking back to the office, or how often they will be there, a strict cleaning system must be implemented, this should include increased cleaning services by either an in-house or outsourced cleaning company, hand sanitizer should be widely available throughout the workplace and shared items should be thoroughly wiped down after every single use. In addition, employees should keep their own individual workspace clean and organized at all times. It is also strongly advised that face coverings are used when an employee is not at their desk, eating or drinking and that daily temperature screenings of all employees are done before entering the building, further minimizing the chances of spreading the virus.
4.) Are you fully prepared to answer concerns from employees regarding the return to office life?
Undoubtably, employees will be hesitant about returning to the office environment and businesses should prioritize the health and safety concerns of their employees above all else. Prior to sending out communications regarding the return to work, liaise with the HR department and ensure you are as prepared and informed as possible for any questions that may come your way.
Communication is key and businesses should be answering employee concerns before they can even be asked. Communication methods such as email, intranets and phone calls (depending on the size of your business) should be used to explain in detail the steps your business is taking to ensure the office environment is safe to return to.
5.) What happens if you discover an employee in the workplace has COVID-19?
The last thing any business wants is an outbreak of COVID-19, however it is important to be realistic and prepare for this, should the worst-case scenario happen. If an employee suspects they have COVID-19, they should leave the workplace immediately, seek testing and self-isolate for 14 days (the rules on this will vary from state to state). Any areas used by the suspected carrier should be cordoned off and disinfected, opening windows and increasing air exchanges can also help lower the risk of it spreading.
Employees who spent more than 10 minutes within six feet of the suspected carrier two days before symptoms began should make themselves known and also leave the workplace to self-isolate for 14 days. If additional employees had minimal contact with the suspected carrier, such as passing them in a hall or a lift, they should not need to self-isolate.
It is worthwhile keeping a record of all the measures you are taking to keep the workspace safe as there are various legal complexities to contend with, businesses across the world have already had claims made against them for not being safe and following guidelines.
The five questions above should be given some careful consideration before ultimately deciding when, or if, you should introduce employees back into a shared office environment, the last thing any business wants is to bring employees back prematurely and it resulting in a COVID-19 outbreak.
It is also worth regularly checking the latest advice about to Returning to Work on the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention website.
Find more information and guidance on coronavirus support measures for businesses, employers, and employees on the activpayroll latest news page.