How Businesses Can Prepare for the Return to Work

What does going back to work look like? This question is top of mind for companies around the world right now.

The return to work looks different for every company, industry and geography, especially given the varying state and federal opening guidelines. But there are a few common, fundamental considerations all companies should weigh as they decide when and how to return to the market in the wake of the pandemic.

Scott Nelson, a partner at Seyfarth Shaw, LLP who specializes in labor and employment law, suggests a few business priorities and predictions as stay-at-home orders lift and business starts to resume. Read on for special insights from our Pandemic Resiliency series, plus a few predictions for the “new normal” in the days ahead.

Governmental restrictions and regulations

The most fundamental reopening consideration is what is allowed by law. State, local and, in some cases, federal government agencies have the final say in determining the timeline to return to work, who can go back, and how to do so. It differs by jurisdiction, and businesses in multiple jurisdictions might not be able to go back in all locations at the same time.

The particulars of your business

Business leaders are the experts on their company’s unique circumstances and market position. Can you do a phased opening? Can you bring all your employees back at once? Do you need to get certain departments, such as IT, up and running before others, like manufacturing? Are there supply-chain and logistics issues? Are your vendors still in business? Is your market buying?

A company should be running on all cylinders for a successful rebound, but the requirements to do so will differ across businesses and locations.

Employee concerns and issues

In their return to work planning, employers should also consider employee concerns and comfort levels. A recent Qualtrics survey of workers found:

  • 66% are not comfortable going back to the workplace right now.
  • 64% want to be able to wear a mask at work.
  • 61% want to maintain social distancing.
  • 50% want more flexible sick leave policies in which employees are encouraged to stay at home sick if they have even minor symptoms.
  • 49% want to limit the number of people they're exposed to in workplace meetings.
  • 43% want their temperatures checked before they enter the building.
  • 37% want to be allowed to skip work without penalty if they feel unsafe.
  • 36% want to be able to continue working from home if they don't feel safe in the office.

This is all to say employees have a lot of concerns. Employers should prioritize and plan to address these concerns to the extent practical.

Post-pandemic measures for a healthy workplace

When the time is right for a company to resume operations and employees return to work, the work environment needs to be prepared with appropriate measures to keep employees and customers safe.

Testing for sickness

If your company decides to do temperature checks, a common way to screen employees for coronavirus, make a plan for that process. Will employees test daily at home, in which case your business may need to rely on the honor system, or will they test when they get to work? Some businesses are installing cameras that sense temperature. In all cases, companies will have to balance a respect for privacy with employee health and comfort level with testing.  

Screening is another way to test employees for sickness before they come into to the office. Screening often consists of a written questionnaire, oral screen, or an electronic or app-based questionnaire. Typically, this process involves asking employees if they have any of the COVID-19 symptoms listed on the CDC's website within the last 48 hours, if have they been in close contact with someone who has, if they have a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher, or if they've been around someone who has tested positive for coronavirus.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

For general businesses not covered under industry-specific regulations, OSHA has not yet issued guidance on whether employee use of personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect against coronavirus. Nevertheless, OSHA has suggested that the general duty clause under  going to apply.

OSHA’s general duty clause requires employers to furnish each worker with "employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm."

Coronavirus is a recognized hazard, which means that businesses need to do an individualized risk assessment based on your workplace and decide what, if any, PPE is needed.

If your company decides to provide some form(s) of PPE, such as gloves or face masks, employees need to be trained on the proper use.

Social distancing at the office

For a safe return to work, businesses should also consider implementing common sense preparations at the work location. For example:

  • Add tape marks on the floor to separate people by six feet
  • Install acrylic barriers on cubicles and in the lobby
  • Stagger shifts and breaks to avoid large groups of employees gathered at the same time

Many businesses are looking at employee flow as they enter and exit the building. If you have a time clock, how do you separate people clocking in? How about locker rooms, or places where people change clothes? In any case, the goal is to limit personal contact in common areas.

The "New Normal" and Lasting Impacts

As more states ease restrictions and business does return, the “new normal” at the office will be different in a few ways. First, telework will see a paradigm shift. Organizations are realizing people can work from home and still be very productive.

As employees are untethered from the location of the office, look for the return of more private spaces in the main office. Many organizations have adopted open concept layouts in recent years, but this will likelynot be practical going forward. In addition, companies that have cubicles should consider installing tall acrylic barriers between workstations to limit the spread of sickness. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught many businesses that they were unprepared for this level of business continuity disruption. Regardless of what measures and precautions your organization takes as workers return, it would be well served to start planning for the next one now.  

For more ideas and suggestions, visit our Pandemic Resiliency series.

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