Although uncertainty still remains, many states across the country are starting to “open back up.” If your state isn’t yet in this situation, it will be eventually. With unemployment claims reaching over 30 million, it’s inevitable that the time will come for all American businesses to re-open, even if the scare of coronavirus persists.
The question then is to ask yourself is how will your company ensure employees return to work safely? We’ve compiled this list of 11 tips to return to work safely so that you can get a head start for your business.
Tips for General Office Settings
Our goal today is to provide you with 11 tips on how to return to work safely. Every business is unique, and there will not be a one-size-fits-all solution. However, there are some general principles that can be applied across all industries that will help your organization get back to work safely. The focus of this advice is for general office settings. These are businesses where the majority of employees work at a desk in an office. Advice for other businesses like manufacturing plants, restaurants, retail, or construction work can be found here.
Tip #1: Create a Plan
The biggest mistake you can make in returning your employees back to the workplace is not having a plan in place to make sure they feel safe. We recommend getting your executive team together, along with your HR department, and start by reviewing the OSHA guidelines provided by the government on preparing your workplace for COVID-19.
These guidelines should provide you a starting point for the things you’ll want to think about when devising your plan. Returning to work safely cannot be done without enormous amounts of thought, effort, and careful planning.
Tip #2: Appoint a Workplace Safety Representative
It’ll be important that you task one or two individuals within your organization to take full responsibility for the implementation and ongoing maintenance of your return-to-work plan. We like referring to these people as workplace safety representatives. If you can give one or two employees ownership over the enforcement of your plan, it is much more likely to be carried out.
Without specifying who is in charge, or who is responsible for taking action, it is far more likely that no action will be taken. Assign ownership, and have your workplace representative report on the state of the plan weekly.
Tip #3: Give Your Staff Ample Notice
Many businesses have now been operating remotely or semi-remotely for almost two months. For some, they’ve been forced to furlough employees. This means that new routines have been formed, new schedules created, and it’s likely that many of your employees are starting to get into the groove of remote work or a furloughed schedule. Abruptly changing this by bringing them back into the office without notice will likely backfire. To prepare employees, we recommend giving at least 3 days notice before the return to work.
Tip #4: Explain Your Return-to-Work Plan to Your Employees
Along with providing sufficient notice, it’ll be important to explain to your employees what new measures, protocols, or standards will be enforced to ensure they feel comfortable returning to the workplace. Without a written explanation and an opportunity to ask questions, employees may not feel like they are being treated fairly.
It is vital that before asking employees to return to the office, they are made aware of the policies being put in place to promote a healthy workplace. Be open, honest, and forthcoming with everything the company is doing to make health and safety a priority.
It's never been more critical to track employee information in the cloud. Is your business prepared for the digital future?
Tip #5: Make Exceptions for At-Risk Employees
Just because the world is getting back to work, doesn’t mean that the virus has magically gone away. The virus is still infecting thousands of people every day, and is very dangerous to certain populations. If you have employees that are older, are immunocompromised, have respiratory issues, or have other health complications that put them at higher risk of infection, please make exceptions for these employees. Do not force people back to work who have legitimate, health-related fear of returning to the office. Show compassion and understanding.
Additionally, you may have employees who live with grandparents, family members, or roommates who are part of these higher-risk populations. These employees should be treated as if they themselves were at risk. Make exceptions for their situation.
Tip #6: Consider Returning Critical Employees First
Depending on the nature of your business, you may have some employees that absolutely need to function in the office or place of work, while others may be capable of completing their responsibilities from anywhere. When considering how to best return safely to work, you might want to consider a “soft-opening” approach. Rather than bring the entirety of your staff back on the same day, bring the critical employees in first.
Over time, you can bring the rest of your employees back. Doing it in waves not only gives employees more time to adjust, but it’ll provide your business the time it needs to iterate and improve upon your return-to-work plan.
Tip #7: Hold Trainings
If you make a plan but don’t train your staff on how to follow that plan, then you actually haven’t accomplished anything. As you bring employees back to the office, have your workplace safety representative (see Tip #2) train your employees on the new protocols, procedures, and measures you’ve put in place to keep them safe. Set expectations and be explicit in your instructions. Be clear about what things are mandatory vs. what things are recommended.
Tip #8: Symptomatic Employees Should Stay Home - No Exceptions
The primary goal of your return-to-work plan should be to minimize the chance of anyone in your workplace contracting coronavirus. With this in mind, it’s critical that employees who are experiencing symptoms of the virus stay home. Make it very clear to all employees that those who feel sick, are coughing, have fevers, or are experiencing any of the symptoms laid out here by the CDC cannot and should not enter the office. Do not make exceptions to this policy.
Tip #9: Maintain Social Distance at Work
There are many ways you might be able to maintain social distancing guidelines (6 feet) in the office. Depending on the size of your workforce and the available space, you may take different approaches.
The first approach, and perhaps the most obvious, is to do what you can to arrange desks in a way that your employees are not in close proximity to one another. This may require you to get creative with conference rooms, common areas, and other open spaces in your office.
If your office simply does not have the space to allow employees to maintain social distance, you may consider scheduling “shift work” or alternating days in the office so that the office is never too crowded, and employees can space out appropriately.
If neither of these suggestions are possible in your office, a third option is to turn employee desks away from each other. If it’s not possible to keep a physical distance between desks, ensuring that employees are not facing one another will at least mitigate the chance of the virus spreading. If configuring desks like this is not possible, use partitions between employee workstations.
Tip #10: Restrict Visitor Access
Previous to COVID-19, it’s likely that you had visitors in your office fairly regularly. This might include employee family members, friends, investors, prospects, or business vendors. Under the current circumstances, you’ll want to restrict access to visitors whenever possible. If business can be conducted with these people in a virtual setting, we recommend the continued use of video conferencing or telecommunications to conduct such meetings.
If it’s necessary to have visitors in the office, you should carefully consider the maintenance and sanitation in your waiting and reception areas. If you have the space, you should ensure that all chairs in these areas are distanced appropriately, and we recommend that the receptionist explain distancing protocols to visitors upon entry.
You may also choose to create a policy where visitors wait outside or in their car before entering for their appointment. Consider a policy where a visitor only enters the office when their appointment is set to take place, and the employee meeting with the visitor is ready to greet them.
Tip #11: Enforce Sanitation Measures
The proper sanitization of your office, and the personal hygiene and sanitation of your employees will be critical to reopening safely. Hand sanitizer should be made available in all conference rooms, waiting rooms, reception areas, kitchens, breakrooms, and at the desks of employees.
Common areas (like many of the areas listed above) should be wiped down with disinfectant or sprayed after every use. Employees should be encouraged to wipe down their personal areas regularly (at least twice per day) and should be given the supplies to keep their area clean.
Your safety representative should also establish a regular routine of disinfecting common contact surfaces. Multiple times a day, door handles, elevator buttons, appliances, shared surfaces, bathrooms, sign-in and reception areas, and shared devices (printers, phones, etc.) should be sanitized. Creating a regular schedule of when these sanitations take place and who will carry them out will ensure they are done so consistently.
There’s no easy way to do something new, and returning to work during a pandemic is new for all of us. What we can do is focus on principles that will hopefully lead to successful outcomes. These 11 tips on returning to work safely represent ideas that you can take and adjust for your situation.
It’s important to have a plan. It’s important to treat employees with respect and understand their fears. It’s important to ensure your office is as sanitary as possible and that the workspace is arranged so employees are comfortable. Your team is counting on you. Be prepared and be persistent.
Here are some resources you might find helpful as you create your plan and bring employees back to work: