After a stringent lockdown in most parts of the country and stay-at-home mandates, we have all become wiser about personal hygiene and safety measures. Now, the time is nearing for workplaces and other businesses to start opening their shutters again for business as usual.
Now is the time to be vigilant about safety measures more than ever, especially in a public space like an Office.
What does that mean for employers? You are now the first line of defence to keep the workplace safe for your employees.
You have the power to provide the necessary tools that your employees need to stay safe in a place where they might spend a major part of their day. You can help put your employees’ minds at ease that they are not carrying the contagion when they go back to their families.
Planning for the Return of Employees at the Workplace
As we get adjusted to the new normal, employers must strive to bring their staff back to work in a safe and effective manner.
Employers should consider the following aspects as they reopen:
1. Employee Health
First and foremost, all employees’ health should be checked beforehand to make the decision on whether they should attend the office or not. It is vital to have an open dialogue with them to stress the importance of self-monitoring their health conditions. If they display any symptoms of COVID-19 or have some known exposure to someone with COVID-19, they should be encouraged to report it to the authorities immediately.
2. Expand on the Remote Working Possibilities
Employers should consider extending remote working options for employees who can still continue their tasks effectively from home and focus on bringing back only employees who need to be in the premise based on their tasks. They should adhere to the government’s guidelines on how much workforce they can retain in the workplace and plan accordingly.
3. Employee Willingness
Employers should also check if their employees have any concerns about returning to work and whether or not they are willing to come to the workplace. It might be good to check with employees if they have any difficulties coming to the workplace.
A common reason for employees to be unwilling to return to work could be due to the fact that they are caring for a child or older parents at home, and find it risky to come in contact with the others out of fear of being infected and passing it onto their kids or older parents. Another reason could be the unavailability of transport or similar concerns.
You should consider asking healthy employees who are affirmatively willing to come to the workplace. In addition, consider letting the high-risk employees continue working from home. This can include aged employees, individuals with co-morbidities or conditions of diabetes, high blood pressure, and pregnant women.
4. Work and Shift Modifications
Employers should also consider modifications to work timings based on employees’ scheduling needs. You should reschedule employee work hours so that they can come in on different days of the week on a rotational basis while the business is not ready to function at full capacity. You can also encourage flexibility of scheduling for employees as per their convenience.
Employers should ensure that return to work policies are implemented in a standard, consistent and non-discriminatory manner.
For this to happen, employers should be transparent and communicate the options they are providing as well as the expectations they have from the employees.
Tips to Keep Workplace Safe and Clean for Employees
Here are some helpful pointers to optimise your workplace to follow social distancing norms and inspire employees to maintain proper hygiene:
1. Personal Hygiene
For staff who have to interact with guests, entertain visitors frequently, front-office employees, sales personnel, etc. it is best to provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kit, wherever possible. This includes gloves, face masks, face shields/goggles, and respiratory protection kit, depending on the job role and exposure.
Provide sanitisers and disinfectant wipes for employees. This does not mean a mega-size sanitiser at the reception desk alone; place sanitising stations across the workplace for quick access. Also, place them near the most frequently touched areas, such as door handles, lifts, print machines, water dispensers, and more.
It is vital to clean and disinfect commonly used spaces with utmost caution such as ledges, common tables, elevator buttons, staircase railings, doorknobs, etc.Encourage employees to keep their desks clutter-free and sanitise their belongings at regular intervals. Follow the guidelines mandated by the government and make it a practice to disinfect regularly. Click To Tweet
Mandate Hand Washing
Mandate washing of hands for all employees and visitors upon entering the office and after coming into contact with frequently touched surfaces. Review handwashing guidelines with your staff to promote awareness. If possible, add additional handwashing stations around the workplace.
If employees use mass transit or their personal transport, make arrangements to sanitise them before entering the workplace. Have temperature screening sensors handy to check fever readings and an oximeter to record oxygen levels.
2. Scheduling of Shifts
Flexible Work Hours
It might not be possible to have all your employees working on the same shift. To follow social distancing, allow flexible work hours and reduce work hours according to government rules so that lesser employees are on location at any point in time.
Implement a staggered shift schedule as per the work demands of different time zones, clients, and projects. This will also help in avoiding overcrowding at the workplace. Determine the best possible schedule keeping various factors in mind, including team collaboration, critical tasks, etc.
Continue to conduct various meetings through phone or remote video platforms to keep up the momentum. If face to face interaction is needed, set up a sanitised room and make sure to follow the 6-feet distance rule of thumb with ample scope for social distancing.
3. Workplace Design
Revisit Seating Arrangements
Ensure that employees are not seated close to each other. If you have open workspaces, allow them to be seated at alternate desks. Rearrange office furniture and change floor plans to ensure adequate social distancing.
Insert partitions between cubicles
If the workplace has low or no cubicle walls, it would be good to create supplement dividers to physically create a barrier between employees to reduce the spread of infectious droplets while coughing or sneezing.
Limit Sharing of Equipment
Wherever possible, reduce possible cross-contamination of shared electronic equipment, print, or copy machines. You can also place covers on top of electronic equipment so that it is easy to wipe and disinfect them regularly.
Close non-essential common areas
Areas such as lounges, fitness rooms, break rooms, and conference rooms should be closed as much as possible. Open cafeteria on a staggered basis for a stipulated count of members at a time so that social distancing can be adopted here as well. Ensure that common spaces are frequently deep cleaned.
4. Social Customs
No Visitor Policy
Follow a strict no visitor policy unless absolutely necessary. Allow only authorised employees into the office as much as possible during this time.
No Physical Contact
Avoid handshakes, and greet people without any physical contact. Encourage your employees to do the same and avoid hugs or other means of contact while interacting with colleagues.
Increase Awareness on Social Distancing
Enforce the 2-meter distance rule at all times. Enable employees to maintain social distancing of two to three arm’s length from other employees when inside the workplace.
Eliminate Shared Workplaces
In order to reduce cross-contamination and enforce social distancing, facilitate dedicated workplaces. Consider moving workstations to create safe distances. Can conference rooms or empty offices be realigned as workstations? Explore different possibilities within the office to optimise the available space.
Limit Crowding in Common Areas
Monitor the inflow of people in common areas such as the cafeteria. Try to have a limited number of individuals in these areas and a mandatory wipe-down of all frequently touched surfaces. Encourage employees not to share food with others. Also, eliminate communal food and food-based celebrations for now at the workplace.
Screening at the Workplace
It should also be mandatory for employers to screen employees before allowing them into the workplace. Companies should be mindful of the following considerations as they are committed to protect their employees and curb the spread of infectious diseases in the workplace:
1. Choosing a Type of Test
Companies who decide to screen employees before entry have to decide whether to implement temperature screening or other diagnostic tests. They should acquire those devices and undertake the best practices of screening employees appropriately.
2. Testing Policy
Companies should also adopt a uniform testing policy for all employees and maintain a centralised log of records. They should provide the necessary training to the employees responsible for performing the screening and coordinating with the authorities.
3. Handling Positive Cases
With the current pandemic, anyone can be susceptible to the infection. It is important to regularly check on your employees to see if they exhibit any signs of infection. If an employee has a temperature reading above 100 degrees Fahrenheit or other symptoms, ensure they stay at home until they stop showing signs of infection.
If a positive case has been identified among the workforce, all employees should be notified about it. The respective work area should be deeply disinfected along with any other surfaces they may have come in contact with.
Implementing the ‘Safe at Work’ Plan
Employee concerns about the safety of returning to work are both inevitable and widespread. According to a mid-March 2020 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 41% of employees were afraid to go to work due to the risk of exposure.
Developing a ‘safe at work’ plan is essential, but it is only the first step. It is equally important to communicate the plan at the outset so that the employees are confident.If you effectively communicate a ‘safe at work’ plan, this will promote awareness on compliance and reassure anxious employees about what is being done to prevent exposure. Click To Tweet
This communication should occur well before employees return through the medium of online intranet forums, newsletters, emails, and video conferencing. It should highlight the following concerns:
- Provision of PPE, as required
- Disinfection measures
- On-site health screening
- Social distancing protocols
- Signs and symptoms of COVID-19
- Time off options
- Flexible Work Hours
- Self-quarantine and return to work policies
- COVID-19 related workplace changes
- Measures addressing vendor or visitors screening
It is also vital to use other forms of communication in the workplace such as signboards or posters to reinforce safety messages:
- Signboards in common areas for safety guidelines
- External signboards for visitors on entry restrictions with expectations and guidelines
- Handwashing posters
- Arrows to indicate one-way corridors
- Visual markers to emphasise social distancing, wherever appropriate
- Repository of information on your shared online network that gives prompt access to COVID-19 prevention and care-related resources for employees
- Review of leave policies to provide flexibility and encourage those who may be ill to stay at home
Continually communicate with your employees to address ongoing concerns as it can be an unsettling and stressful experience for many. Even for employees who continue to work from home, you might have to put a feedback mechanism in place.
Include regular reminders of policies and resources so that everyone is in the know. It is recommended to have a dedicated forum or portal for addressing any concerns with a designated point-person to handle specific queries. If there are safety concerns or exposures, encourage employees to follow an internal complaint procedure.
Thoughtful planning, employee communication, training, and implementation are essential to allay fears and safety concerns. Ensure frequent and ongoing communication at all times for effective implementation of your plan as employees transition back to the workplace.
Manage Psycho-Social Risk of Employees
Apart from physical safety needs, employees’ mental needs should also be considered. In this context, create a support system for your employees so that they don’t feel isolated. Facilitate a buddy system to monitor stress and burnout and provide timely psychological support to your employees.
Also, provide information and advice on stress reduction and self-rejuvenating techniques such as relaxation and meditation, Yoga tutorials, and wellness apps. Employees should be able to seek assistance when they need any kind of support so establish open channels to voice out concerns and fears during this unprecedented situation.
In the end, it’s up to each individual to stay healthy and safe. But employers play a significant role in setting the stage to ensure that their employees are in the best place to do that. Even though social distancing can hamper organisational culture, employee engagement, and productivity, it is the need of the hour.
The impact can be greatly minimised by undertaking preemptive safety measures and effectively communicating the same. Managers should be well-equipped to handle employee needs and responses to facilitate a safe transition back to the workplace.