With the rapidly evolving COVID-19 pandemic, employers around the world are searching for answers as to how they can protect the health of the workforce, maintain some semblance of productivity, and minimize the devastating impact of this novel virus.
The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) have both recommended a policy of social distancing for all people during this complex and crucial time. Unfortunately, while news of the guidance has been well-publicized, there is still a dangerous lack of understanding from individuals and employers when it comes to social distancing.
Our goal here is to clarify the meaning, goals, and best practices for social distancing so employers and HR departments can communicate effectively with their workforces about this guidance and make appropriate decisions for the health of their teams and businesses.
Moving forward, we’ll:
- Define social distancing
- Explain why social distancing is so important to public health right now
- Provide guidance for employers looking to maximize their COVID-19 response
What is Social Distancing?
To put it as simply as possible, social distancing means not getting too close to other people. As a practice, social distancing is designed to reduce vectors for disease through individual isolation.
In the office, social distancing means not shaking hands, not gathering together in board or meeting rooms, and not eating or socializing in communal spaces. Staying at least one meter away from other people is a good practice, but maintaining at least two meters is ideal.
Away from work, social distancing means avoiding all nonessential social interactions. Whether it’s attending a play or sporting event, socializing at the bar, or even shopping at the mall, any preventable social interaction or time in a public space (especially involving more than 10 people) should be avoided.
What’s the Difference Between Social Distancing and Self-Quarantine?
As we’ve said, social distancing is a general practice of avoiding close contact with other people. At this time, everybody should be practicing social distancing.
Self-quarantining is the specific practice of staying home during illness or following exposure to an infected person. At this time, noteverybody needs to self-quarantine. You need to self-quarantine and avoid leaving your home completely if you:
- Have a cough and fever and have
been diagnosed with or come into close contact with someone who has been
diagnosed with COVID-19
- You need to quarantine for 7 days past your symptoms ending
- Feel fine but were exposed to someone who has
tested positive for COVID-19
- You need to stay home and avoid all public places and unnecessary social interactions for 14 days
Why is Social Distancing Crucial Right Now?
There’s been a lot of confusing messaging over the last few weeks about best- and worst-case scenarios for COVID-19, but Dr. Asaf Bitton of Ariadne Labs in Boston does a great job articulating why social distancing is key to supporting our healthcare system and preventing the worst-case scenario:
Our health system will not be able to cope with the projected numbers of people who will need acute care should we not muster the fortitude and will to socially distance each other starting now. On a regular day, we have about 45,000 staffed ICU beds nationally, which can be ramped up in a crisis to about 95,000. Even moderate projections suggest that if current infectious trends hold, our capacity (locally and nationally) may be overwhelmed as early as mid-late April. Thus, the only strategies that can get us off this concerning trajectory are those that enable us to work together as a community to maintain public health by staying apart.
As Dr. Bitton explains, we must slow the spread of COVID-19 by creating physical space between one other in the coming weeks. If we cannot take these awkward but sensible measures, hospitals and healthcare facilities could easily become overwhelmed, as has already happened in Italy.
It’s worth mentioning that Italy is only 11 days ahead of the United States when it comes to the first diagnosed case. Given the approximately five-day incubation period of the virus, that means our next few days are absolutely critical.
If employers don’t encourage social distancing and take a break from the traditional office culture for the next month, we risk a national emergency that would touch millions of lives around the country.
What Can Employers Do to Support Social Distancing?
In a perfect world, we’d be able to hit the pause button on business until this public health emergency has been sorted out. Unfortunately, economic realities mean that’s not an option.
In order to proceed safely, however, there are a few things employers need to do to protect their workforces and businesses. Let’s take a look at some simple, proactive measures you can take to support social distancing and keep people healthy:
Provide Employee Education on COVID-19
There are an alarming number of misconceptions and misunderstandings of the COVID-19 pandemic out there. One of the most important things you can do is to set your team straight on what’s fact, what’s fiction, and what’s best practice.
A quick email with links to some clear, useful resources (feel free to share this post with them!) will go a long way to set the tone, help your employees feel more secure, and get things moving in a productive, appropriate direction.
Even if you plan on keeping your office open until the event that official quarantine orders are issued, you absolutely need to keep sick employees and employees with sick family members away from the rest of your team. As we’re already seeing around the nation, there is a hesitancy to do this on the part of many workers (in spite of the greater good) because they either don’t want to or feel they cannot sacrifice their limited PTO.
If you expect your employees to stay away from the office and practice appropriate distancing and self-quarantine, you need to unlock your PTO system and provide your team members with the security they need to protect themselves, their families, their coworkers, and your business.
Enable Remote Work
Unlike the Spanish Flu pandemic of a century ago, COVID-19 is occurring in the age of the internet. That means many employers can practice company-wide social distancing while preserving productivity and some sense of normalcy through remote work.
Remote work allows you to close your office and follow best practices for COVID-19 containment while still continuing operations effectively. You can even preserve the casual and collegial feel of your company culture through eConferencing to create opportunities for meaningful professional and social interactions during this time of social distancing.
The COVID-19 pandemic is evolving from day to day but the time for decisive action by employers has unquestionably come. All businesses must make modifications to their daily routines to support social distancing, enable employees to contribute meaningfully from home, and do their part to limit the spread of this deadly virus.
- Social distancing is the practice of maintaining distance between people (preferably at least two meters) and avoiding groups and nonessential interactions
- Social distancing and self-quarantining are not
the same thing
- Everyone should practice social distancing
- Self-quarantining is only necessary for those sick or exposed
- Practicing social distancing in the coming days is crucial to slowing the spread of COVID-19 and protecting our healthcare system so that it can support everybody’s needs
How to Learn More
If you’re an HR or business leader searching for guidance to help you navigate the COVID-19 pandemic with an eye towards public health, productivity preservation, and employee benefits compliance, you should join Launchways on Friday, March 20 for What Employers Need to Know About the COVID-19 Outbreak.
This one-hour webinar will deliver insight from Launchways’ all-star team of HR and client success experts. Discussion topics will include:
- Understanding the new legislative updates and agency guidance
- Actionable human capital management strategies to address social distancing while maintaining productivity
- HR best practices for pandemic policy and employee communications
- How COVID-19 connects to/affects your employee benefits offerings
- Regulations and compliance expectations from OSHA, COBRA, FMLA, etc.
Our team is updating their webinar plan throughout the week to reflect the latest news, statistics, and federal and local guidance. That means this session will be the definitive source for HR and operational recommendations based on the progression of the pandemic. To save your seat at What Employers Need to Know About the COVID-19 Outbreak, sign up today!