At some point, the quarantine will end and companies will start getting back to business. However, it’s unlikely this return will be “business as usual,” but will instead have to factor in the new nuances COVID-19 has brought about. How we handle going back to work will have a big impact on whether we rid ourselves of COVID-19 for good or if we see the coronavirus come back for new mass infections, as the Spanish Flu did a century ago.
As employers, we have an enormous responsibility to get our team members back to work as safely as possible. Rushing head-on as if nothing has changed since before the virus reached our shores is a surefire way to end up with another quarantine and many sick employees. So you have to plan TODAY for how you are going to reopen your business.
There is no proven formula for how to go back to work safely after COVID-19 has receded. As a world, we’ve never gone through anything quite like this before. But many people are thinking about how to work safely in a post-COVID-19 world and you do not have to reinvent the wheel to keep your team safe. In this post we’ll explore some of the main ideas out there about how to get back to business responsibly, including:
- Why it’s so important that you create a back-to-work plan today
- How to go back to business safely
- Long-term strategies to protect your team, business, and community
Why You Should Create a Back-to-Work Plan Today
If quarantines were lifted tomorrow and the CDC announced that the virus had been contained, do you know how you would begin bringing employees back into the office?
Given the rapidly evolving nature of the COVID-19 situation, there’s a good chance your answer is “no.” That’s why it is never too soon to start creating a back-to-work plan. You just can’t wait until things open up to create your plan: you have to be ready to hit the ground running as soon as you get the go-ahead.
But what if you didn’t put any particular plan into action? If the government says that it is safe to go back to work, what’s the risk?It’s highly unlikely the virus will be eradicated based on the current sporadic isolation orders, so there will still be people with the virus within the community. If you throw caution to the wind and jump right back into business as usual and one of those people is on your team, your entire company could potentially become infected. You can see how this could potentially snowball into another full-fledge outbreak, which would mean shutting down your office entirely once again.
For our own sake and everyone in our communities, we need to proceed cautiously and intelligently even after authorities say that it is okay to start getting back to business.
How to Go Back to Business Safely
Businesses must become an active participant in the effort to expand testing for COVID-19 and its antibodies. From looking at countries such as Singapore and South Korea that managed to control the outbreak, the key to stopping the spread of the disease once the quarantine is lifted and people go back to work is consistent and readily available testing, coupled with “contact tracing” – tracking interactions to identify people who might have been exposed. While the US is not necessarily set up to implement the kind of regimented, centralized testing and contact tracing system that Singapore used to great effect, employers can implement similar systems in their offices. Namely, through testing and keeping track of employee interactions such as meetings in order to isolate employees who may have been exposed if an employee tests positive.
There are many tests being developed and employers will have to work with their brokers and insurers to get the tests their team needs. The US is working to make testing more available, so it’s likely by the time your employees are coming back into work the tests may be much more widely available. Once you acquire the tests, you will have to decide on a testing cadence, testing your team as frequently as necessary without becoming overly burdensome. You can also use screenings such as temperature readings to identify candidates for testing. And don’t forget to test for antibodies as well as infections: it can be almost as useful to know who is already immune as it is to identify employees who might be carriers of the virus.
Another key consideration in your plan is determining how you will know when it’s time to get back to work. Currently, most organizations are in a waiting pattern to see when the quarantine will be lifted. Now is the time to be developing your return to work plan, and process which may includeleveraging recommendations from a range of trusted authorities and even employee feedback.
Once you determine that it is time to bring employees back into work, you need to make sure that they are doing it safely. This will make up the bulk of your back-to-work plan.One key best practice to keep in mind is to minimize the number of employees who are in the workplace at once. There are two main ways to do this: slowly phase employees back into the office and stagger employees’ schedules.
Instead of abruptly having everyone come back into the office, slowly have employees come back in based on how important it is that they work from the office. That way, you keep occupancy (and thus the risk of infection) down while simultaneously reducing the number of people who will get exposed if someone does come to work with the virus.
Also keep in mind that all of your employees do not have to come into the office at the same time. By staggering schedules, you can allow everyone to spend some time in the office but still keep occupancy down. For example, you can have different teams come in on alternating days so that people are in the office with their main collaborators while minimizing their risk. And staggered schedules do not just have to be by day. You can also modify employees’ daily hours, to the extent they feel comfortable with, so that everyone is not arriving to and leaving from the office at the same time.Once you decide who will be in the office and when, then it is time to establish office safety precautions.
Firstly, you should do everything in your power to prevent employees from coming into work if they are sick or have been exposed to the virus. The easiest strategy you can leverage to diminish sick individuals from coming into the office is to maintain a flexible work-from-home policy and encourage employees to stay at home whenever they feel under the weather or think that they have been exposed to the virus.
But you also cannot solely rely on your employees to self-report illness or exposure. While it might sound extreme, you should consider conducting daily health screenings before employees are allowed to start their shifts or workdays. Work with a third party vendor that provides health professionals to take employees temperatures at the door and conduct questionnaires to determine their level of risk of exposure. And if an employee seems ill, either send them home to work remotely or refer them to additional screening or treatment.
Another top priority should be to implement and enforce social distancing protocols. Just because employees can come into the office again does not mean that they shouldn’t limit their interactions. Encourage your employees to avoid close contact by issuing distancing guidelines and limiting occupancy for elevators, meeting rooms, and common areas. And if necessary, redesign your office to create distance or physical barriers between desks (the gold standard being recommended is 6-feet of space between individuals at all times).
Finally, you have to maintain a clean work environment and supply plenty of protective equipment. This means intensifying your daily cleaning, potentially adding mid-day cleanings or daily UV-sanitation to eliminate any traces of the virus. Pay particular attention to common areas and high-risk surfaces such as phones and doorknobs. Provide masks and gloves to frontline workers who might interact with people outside of the office and provide alcohol based hand sanitizer wherever possible. In particular, place touch-free hand sanitizer stations at the entrances to any common areas and meeting spaces so employees can easily sanitize before interacting with each other.
You may well want to adopt additional safety protocols unique to your business and its needs. But these steps should go a long way towards ensuring that your team can get back to work safely, with minimal disruptions to your business.
Thinking Long Term
It would be nice to think that we could go back to working the way we did before the outbreak, after an initial period of caution. But the fact of the matter is that COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on how we work and do business in the future. And it is well worth your time to consider how you can adapt in the long-term to prevent your business from getting disrupted by another outbreak.
As difficult as it might sound, you may well want to rethink the physical layout of your office post-COVID-19 outbreak. While open offices have been all the rage for years, they don’t do a good job of protecting employees from sick coworkers. Many employers may end up adding space and divisions between desks, and positioning employees so that they work back-to-back rather than next-to or facing each other. You may also want to add infrastructure that facilitates remote collaboration, including videoconferencing equipment in meeting rooms and enhanced call booths for individual employees to work one-on-one with a remote employee. You should also consider making at least some social distancing protocols standard practice moving forward, along with intensive cleaning and extensive hand sanitizer stations.
Probably the biggest long-term impact that the COVID-19 outbreak will have on businesses is the expanded role of remote work. Many employers who were resistant to remote work will be much more open to the idea now that they’ve been forced to implement it. But even companies that accepted remote work will likely continue to expand it further. Whichever category you fall into, you should consider making remote work a fact of life at your company going forward. Depending on your business, you could even use it to replace the office entirely and cut your costs as well as your risk. Assuming you still see value in maintaining an office or need a physical office space, you can use remote work to augment your sick leave so that employees never come in if they are not feeling 100% well. Letting employees work from home without questioning their motives will help you avoid an office outbreak, whether it’s COVID-19 or a different illness.
Finally, employers should plan to be part of the vaccine distribution effort that keeps COVID-19 from coming back for good. Public health resources are going to be overwhelmed trying to provide both vaccines and medical care that was delayed because of the virus. You should work with your benefits broker, insurer, and providers to help your team members get the vaccine as soon as it is available. If you can get the vaccine administered in your office, even better. And don’t forget to provide the vaccine to employees’ immediate families as well.
Getting back to business after COVID-19 is a daunting task. Business owners and HR professionals are going to have to balance a wide range of considerations to ensure a safe and productive workplace. Remember these key takeaways and you will be a long way towards making sure that your team can get back to work as safely as possible:
- Listen to trusted authorities, your employees, and your gut when it comes to deciding when to open your offices back up
- Try to minimize the number of employees in the workplace, especially to start out
- Protect your employees through health screenings, social distancing guidelines and protocols, intensive cleaning, and protective equipment including hand sanitizer
- Remote work is an invaluable tool even once the quarantine is lifted
- Consider your long-term strategy to limit the risk of an outbreak, including redesigning your office and leveraging remote work and social distancing
- Develop a plan to get your employees and their families vaccinated as quickly and easily as possible as soon as a vaccine is available
Most importantly of all, don’t do it alone when it comes to developing your back-to-work plan. You should bring in experts on workplace safety, employee healthcare, and human resources to help you keep your team safe.