Many businesses in the US have shuttered their operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, and despite the growing number of cases – 4,405,932 as of July 30th, 2020, with more than 150,000 deaths (according to the CDC) – serious consideration should be given to what steps should be taken before reopening.
The National Safety Council, in concert with the Safe Actions for Employee Returns (SAFER) task force, has identified 10 universal actions every employer must consider before reopening:
- Phasing. Rather than having everyone rush back to the office all at once, consider creating a phased transition to return to work aligned with risk and exposure levels. Here are a few suggestions:
- Have a certain percentage of the workforce come in on certain days. For example, have 50% of your employees come in on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The rest could come in on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Then switch every other week. This will prevent your office from being crowded.
- Have certain percentages come in each week for a week. For example, have 25% of your employees come in for a week and get trained and used to new safety procedures. Then have them work from home the next week, and bring a different 25% in for the same thing. By the end of the month, you will have everyone trained while minimizing exposure. Then you can switch to another schedule.
- Screenings. Before employees return, disinfect the workplace. That means having all surfaces professionally cleaned, considering air purification systems, and other precautions. Make sure you have a plan for regularly disinfecting the workplace. Also make any physical alterations needed for physical distancing, such as spreading out desks and workspaces and analyzing whether confined spaces like conference rooms or individual offices are safe for more than one person to be in at a time. There should be people in charge of maintaining these physical alterations, as the hustle and bustle of the workplace might move those alterations or prove they are inadequate.
- Screenings. Develop a health status screening process for all employees. Use CDC guidelines for developing this process, and remember that even healthy-looking people might be infected. Have a plan for making sure you don’t leave yourself open for infection because you overlooked important details like these.
- Hygiene. Create a plan to handle sick employees, and encourage safe behaviors for good hygiene and infection control. That includes hand-washing, making hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment (PPE) readily available, and being prepared to stay up to date on the latest guidance from the CDC and other professionals on best practices.
- Tracing. Follow proper contact-tracing steps if workers get sick to curb the spread of COVID-19. The CDC has guidance for contact tracing, including training plans.
- Mental health. Commit to supporting the mental and emotional health of your workers by sharing support resources and policies. That includes reexamining what mental health-related benefits your organizations offer and effectively communicating the existence of those benefits to your employees. Make sure you stress the discrete nature of many of those benefits to help combat a lack of participation due to anxiety of retaliation or being exposed.
- Training. Train leaders and supervisors not only on the fundamentals of safety, such as risk assessment and hazard recognition, but also on the impacts of COVID-19 on mental health and well-being, as employees will feel the effects of the pandemic long after it is over. Make sure you adjust your training as new guidance and procedures become available. Consider methods of reinforcing training on a regular schedule.
- Engagement plan. Notify employees in advance of the return to work, and consider categorizing workers into different groups based on job roles, bringing groups back one at a time. Be careful about how you categorize workers, ensuring you are not grouping people based on protected class. Make sure you are sensitive to employees who might be at a higher risk of having serious complications should they contract COVID-19. Brush up on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other laws that pertain to such individuals to be certain you are both being sensitive to the needs of your employees and protecting yourself from litigation.
- Communication. Develop a communications plan to be open and transparent with workers on your return-to-work process. Consider a multifaceted communication approach. That includes e-mails, announcements on the intranet, social media posts, and even phone calls and text messages. Get all managers on board with your plan so you can better coordinate your efforts.
- Assessment. Outline the main factors your organization is using as guidance to provide a simplistic structure to the extremely complex return-to-work decision. The more organized you are before you start rolling out these new policies and procedures and bringing people back into the workplace, the better able you will be to handle unexpected complications and unforeseen consequences.
Of critical importance to every one of these steps is your ability to be flexible and adaptive. The nature of the epidemic has changed drastically over the last few months. It will continue to change as we are met with new challenges but also new solutions and a better understanding of the disease.
It is also important that you show transparency and thoughtfulness toward your employees.
Make sure you build the ability to change into your procedures and have a structured and measured way to incorporate changes as they arise.