A well planned return to the office

Following the re-opening of restaurants and other non-essential shops which meant that several employees returned to their place of work, discussions with many business leaders invariably always turns onto how they should proceed with having their employees return to the office. My advice is to use CAUTION. They are many variables at play and you cannot afford to get anyone of them wrong. Here are some variables every business leader should keep in mind.

When is the right time?
The World Health Organization recommends that nonessential workers return to the office should only be considered when there is a sustained decrease in community transmission, a decreased rate of positive tests, sufficient testing available to detect new outbreaks, and adequate local hospital capacity to accommodate a surge of new cases should that occur. I believe this is all well covered in Malta.

Who should return to the workplace?
Not everyone and not all at once. It’s best to have employees return gradually, which allows for lower density, making physical distancing less of a challenge. Maintaining a partially remote workforce also facilitates stress-testing physical or workflow changes to minimise disruption as more employees return to the workplace over subsequent weeks and months. However please consider to carefully manage with maximum flexibility the following situations:-

  • Any employees at highest risk for complications of Covid-19, due to their health condition, to remain working remotely where possible.
  • Any employees with children at home and who lack alternative child care and with schools still closed, to continue to work remotely if possible.

Protect employees who come to the workplace
The most important protection in the workplace is to effectively exclude those at highest risk of transmitting the disease. Certain workplaces are introducing thermal scanning on a daily basis to identify employees with fevers, while others are coupling scanning with questioning of returning employees, e.g., asking them whether they have a known exposure, a sick family member at home, or other symptoms including cough, shortness of breath, chills, muscle pain, sore throat, or new loss of taste and smell. Many companies will restrict visitor access to the workplace to reduce the potential for exposure. Employers can exclude employees who answer affirmatively at their discretion. Other employers require and provide masks for returning employees. Masks can be uncomfortable and must be removed for eating or drinking, but they provide some protection against spread of respiratory disease. Employers should explain that the mask is not to protect the wearer, but rather to protect co-workers. Handshakes are not coming back any time soon, and even elbow bumps don’t allow for the recommended physical distancing.

The workplace — whether it’s cubicles or an open workspace, should be arranged so that employees can remain at least 2 meters apart. More employees will likely eat at their desks and companies can use sign-up sheets to decrease congestion in shared kitchens. Companies should continue to encourage hand-washing. Companies should set capacity limits on meeting or conference rooms to allow the 2 meters minimum spacing; if a meeting is too large for the available room, some participants should call in even if they are in the building. Many businesses are also enhancing their cleaning and disinfection action while offering an increasing access to hand and surface sanitizers. While there is new evidence that the risk of virus transmission from surfaces is low, employees or cleaning staff should use disinfectant wipes regularly on shared surfaces such as vending machines or drink dispensers or shared printers, and employees should not share office equipment such as keyboards or phone headsets. Water fountains and ice machines can spread virus and should be turned off. Companies should also disable jet driers in bathrooms, which may disperse virus particles, and supply paper towels instead.

Finally, if an employee in the workplace is found to have Covid-19, companies must inform those who might have been exposed to him or her at work during the two days prior to symptoms. Those coworkers will need to be excluded from the workplace and self-quarantine. Employers must also maintain the infected employee’s confidentiality by not sharing their name.

What should a company we do if they discover an infected employee in the workplace?
Many have few or no symptoms early in a Covid-19 infection, and it’s likely that many workplaces will have an exposure despite the employer’s best efforts. As discussed, an employee or visitor with suspected Covid-19 should immediately leave the workplace and be advised to seek testing or medical attention. Areas used by the ill person for prolonged periods in the last week should be cordoned off and disinfected after allowing 24 hours for respiratory droplets to settle. Increasing air exchanges or opening windows can also reduce risk. In such instances, employers should identify any employee who spent more than 10 minutes within 2 meters of the infected person during the two days before symptoms began, and those employees should also leave the workplace, self-quarantine, and monitor for symptoms until 14 days after their last exposure. Employees who have had passing contact, such as in a lift, need not self-quarantine.

How can employers meet the growing mental and emotional health needs of their employees?
What has happened can be considered a traumatic event. Some employees could have have experienced loneliness. There will be more cases of anxiety and depression, especially as many employees where under severe stress to working from home while dealing with other disturbing issues like taking care of a child at the same time. Companies should consider financing partially or wholly access to mental health services for their employees on a strict anonymous basis. Employers must step up to this challenge.

How should business carefully communicate on returning to the workplace?
It is a no brainer that companies need to earn the trust of their employees through frequent and accurate communications. Companies should address employee concerns about the safety of returning by focusing communications on the actions being taken to protect them, including workplace cleaning, various policies and changes being made to allow social distancing. This information should be shared in regular pushed communications such as email. Moreover employers should be very sensitive to make sure that any employee or group of employees should not be stigmatized for not being able to return to the workplace for the reasons already mentioned and management should speak out against it. Unconscious bias in the company’s communication should not happen and inclusion strategies should be adopted as their importance is even greater now.

Covid-19 is a fast-moving virus and its impact on organisations and the world has been strong and swift. The practices outlined above will not only help protect employees, the community and company’s reputation, but also position companies for a smoother transition as they arrange return to the workplace. Be kind, be gentle.

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