Returning to work post COVID PandemicAs we consider how to re-enter our shared workspaces, we need to establish our new normal. Business owners and managers must offer leadership so people feel safe going back into a public setting like a workplace.  While remote work is enabling several industries and businesses to continue their operations, this is not business as usual. Many need to get back to a shared workspace for operational reasons. Others want to get back for social and emotional reasons. The topic of return to work amid a global pandemic is vast and complex. In today’s article, I offer pointers to understand the world from your employees’ perspective and provide resources as you consider what returning to work will look like for your business.

The Tough Balancing Act As We Return To Work

The pivotal issue at this time is how to balance the concern for health with the need to return to more productive work. 

Be honest with your employees what we don’t have all the answers yet. We need to figure out together to re-enter smoothly and to avoid the employee concerns (and complaints) that will arise as we all figure out this new normal.

Another balancing act: your perspective. Most owners and managers are eager to get back to work. However, for some employees, returning to work might not be worth it at this time. Current unemployment benefits might create a financial disincentive to get back to work. For example, the maximum unemployment benefit in Virginia is $378 per week. With the $600 supplemental unemployment, low-wage earners might lose out if they go back to work. However, the calculation might be different if your organization offers a rich employment benefits package.

If your organization is able to maintain a good benefits package, remind employees of your medical and paid time off benefits. This might tip the balance in favor of returning to work.

Stay Informed of The Evolution of The Pandemic

Appoint a COVID point-person who is responsible for tracking all public safety and health guidelines. This is probably best done by the business owner or a senior leader as this COVID point-person will also be involved in recommending public safety protocols and implementing new work procedures in your workplace.

For more on how to create an infectious disease and response plan, check recommendations provided by OSHA in this easy-to-read booklet (pdf format).

Rethink Your Physical Return To Workspace

Social distancing (I prefer “physical distancing”) is now a requirement. This means rearranging workspaces so desks and work areas are 6 feet apart. Meeting rooms may have capacity limits based on the required distancing while around the table. Limit the number of people gathering in small spaces and offices. 

According to OSHA, employers can reduce exposure to COIVID-19 with “engineered solutions” are not expensive:

  • Install high-efficiency air filters
  • Increase ventilation rates in the workspaces
  • Install physical barriers, such sneeze guards (seen in most grocery stores) or office partitions.

Establish Different Return To Work Patterns 

Consider a phased re-entry of your workforce. The re-entry can be based on the centrality of jobs to your business, the physical workspace, and the ability to work remotely or not.

It makes sense for certain employees to continue to work from home or on a flexible schedule. Review (or create) a remote work policy with an eye to more specific criteria for eligibility, performance, and periodic assessment of the remote arrangements.

Be prepared to explain to your entire workforce which jobs will be permitted to continue to telework, which won’t and why. You want to avoid resentment that some may be perceived as receiving unfair preferential treatment.

The best physical distancing measure remains working remotely. Consider what jobs are able to be done from home. Ask employees and their supervisors what their thoughts are on remote versus office work at this time. 

Some employees may opt not to come back to work for a while. This is especially true for employees with children and no school or daycare options. Those employees might want to use the new paid emergency FMLA provided by FFCRA to bridge their employment until the start of the next school year. 

Others will decide to leave the workforce for a time. In both cases, identify those workers and determine how their work can be covered. Can you distribute their tasks among colleagues? Will you need to train an existing employee to take on a new role? Will you have to recruit a new employee at least temporarily?

Infection Control 

As we return to shared workspaces, infection control in tandem with physical distancing is essential to prevent the spread of the virus among your workforce. Emphasize good hygiene and disinfection practices. 

Here are some of the recommendations made by OSHA:

  • Promote frequent and thorough hand washing for employees, customers, and worksite visitors with a place to wash their hands. If soap and running water are not immediately available, provide alcohol-based hand rubs containing at least 60% alcohol. 
  • Encourage “respiratory etiquette” such as covering coughs and sneezes through video training and posters.
  • Provide employees, customers, and visitors with tissues and trash receptacles. 
  • Discourage workers from using other workers’ phones, desks, offices, or other work tools and equipment
  • Increase housekeeping practices, including routine cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces, equipment
  • Encourage wearing of a cloth face mask 

One area of concern: break rooms. Consider closing them except to access a fridge. Encourage workers to eat outdoors or stay isolated in their work area to avoid contamination around the lunch table.

Check my other blog on how to address employees’ most pressing questions as you re-open your offices.

Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is a compilation of information gathered through authoritative sources but doesn’t constitute legal advice. I am an HR pro, not an attorney or an infectious disease specialist! This information is based on the best information available as of May 1, 2020