As many organizations and their leaders wade through the many requirements of employees returning to work safely following arguably one of the biggest business challenges they have faced so far, their employees are going to have questions and concerns. Employees are going to expect that their employers will have the answers to their questions. It is up to employers to determine how and when to start the lofty task of formulating and communicating a plan for returning their employees to the workplace as stay-at-home restrictions are slowly lifted. Many states have already issued significant obligations for organizations to ensure that their workplaces remain safe and that the concerns of transmitting COVID-19 are minimized. While organizations are making these decisions, they need to comply with federal and state directives and guidance and be careful about possible discrimination, wage, leave, and benefit laws. Employers are encouraged to check their state’s website for additional guidelines and information. The following are a compilation of considerations given what information is available at this time. Of course, these considerations are subject to change based on the ever-evolving landscape that surrounds this pandemic.
One of the first considerations that employers need to prioritize is how to put safety first. The health and safety of the organization’s workforce is paramount as employers determine the safest and most effective ways to bring the operations of the organization back to what will ultimately become the new normal. Employees will be looking to management for answers and will also be counting on management to maintain an open line of communication to answer their concerns regarding the plan to return-to-work. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) has an extensive list of recommendations and guidance surrounding effective ways to prepare for and mitigate COVID-19 as organizations return-to-work, and for when COVID-19 could potentially come back in a second wave. OSHA’s “OSHA 3990 – Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19” may be found at https://www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA3990.pdf and contains recommendations and descriptions of mandatory safety and health standards in order for employers to provide their employees with a safe and healthful workplace.
The second consideration for organizations to prioritize after creating a safety plan is making determinations regarding which employees will be asked to return to the workplace. Returning employees to work could mean multiple things to include: recalling furloughed employees, transitioning away from mandatory remote work, or ramping back up toward full productivity regardless of where work is being performed. For many organizations, it likely means a combination of all three. As employers determine their strategies to do so, most will likely focus on getting mission-critical employees, whether in an office setting, a factory setting, etc., back into the building as soon as it is safe and practical to do so. This will absolutely be a challenge as determining exactly who those mission-critical employees are is not always easy. Some roles, such as sales or relationship management, that have historically been viewed as requiring face-to-face interaction, may need to evolve given changing health guidelines and customer preferences, as well as the possibility of travel for non-essential purposes being restricted for the foreseeable future. Other roles undeniably depend on onsite tools or technology and can’t be done effectively without them.
Employers will need to understand and ensure compliance with federal, state and local orders as restrictions are lifted. Since these rules vary by locale and probably won’t be relaxed in unison, employers should plan for a range of scenarios based on where mission-critical work takes place. Once all restrictions are lifted and employees have been slowly integrated back into the workplace, employers will need to work to continue to keep employees safe. Employers may want to implement a daily medical questionnaire with employees that relates to how he or she is feeling, and whether he or she has experienced any symptoms such as a fever, dry cough, loss of taste, respiratory distress, etc. in order to mitigate the potential for a sick employee entering the workplace. Employers may also want to take an employee’s temperature each day when he or she enters the workplace. Employees who are ill should be sent home and employers will want to make sure that they are following the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) guidelines with regards to the confidentiality of an employee’s medical information.
New deep cleaning and sanitization regimens will most likely be a part of what the new normal looks like for many organizations. In addition, changes to the layout of the workspace, such as moving workstations farther apart or changing employee schedules to reduce the number of employees in buildings at any one time may be necessary to comply with federal, state, or local guidelines regarding proper social distancing protocols. Employers may also consider limiting or eliminating access to communal areas in the workplace, such as lunch rooms and large conference rooms. If an employer chooses to limit or eliminate access to the lunch room, for example, employers should ensure that they are providing employees alternative options so that employees may still take an uninterrupted meal break and have access to sanitary space to enjoy their lunch. Options include the staggering of lunch periods and allowing employees to bring their own small refrigerator into the workplace to store their lunch items.
A major part of any organization’s plan to return employees to work is ensuring that they have the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) to satisfy any specific guidelines that may be set forth by state and/or local governments. PPE may include face masks or face coverings (yes, there is a difference), gloves, gowns, hand sanitizer, anti-bacterial soap, or protective shields for employees who are in customer or client-facing positions. There will likely be a wait to receive orders for most PPE as there is a mass global demand for it, so being prompt in ordering this equipment is crucial.
Many organizations that were able to operate on a fully remote-basis during the stay-at-home orders are opening their buildings and are making it optional for employees to return-to-work. Employees are asked to make the choice for themselves as long as continuing to work remotely is practical. This is certainly not a one-size-fits-all approach; however, it empowers employees to make the decision that best fits their needs during these challenging times. For example, employees who have young children at home whose daycare or school is closed, or who have preexisting medical conditions and are more likely to contract COVID-19 may want to consider taking advantage of the option to continue working remotely for the foreseeable future not only for their safety, but for their family’s safety. A word of caution: one of the biggest mistakes that an employer may make is allowing employees the option to work from home even though the buildings are open and then holding it against he or she in some form or excluding him or her in some fashion because they didn’t come back to work right away. This is clear retaliation and not only may the business’ reputation and viability be put on the line, the individual responsible for the retaliation may be held personally liable in court for retaliating against the employee. This is a time where communication and trust must be a two-way street. Employers must put tools in place to be able to trust their employees, and employees must trust in their employer that they are acting with their safety and best interests in mind.
Last and certainly not least, employers need employees’ buy-in. This is much easier said than done as even seemingly bulletproof plans will likely run into trouble. Employers must move forward with empathy in mind and a clear understanding that while all employees have experienced a change in daily life due to the pandemic, not all employees have experienced the change in the same way. Organizations may have employees who have conditions that increase their risk of serious COVID-19 infection and are reluctant to return to the office. Others may be eager to leave remote work behind, but have caregiving responsibilities that make it difficult or impossible for them to do so. With this said, change is oftentimes challenging and frustrating for employees and like any challenge, will take employees time to adapt. Putting on required personal protective equipment, or adhering to social distancing guidelines will be difficult at first, but with time, employees will adapt so long as the organization consistently requires adherence and managers model it. Like any effort to implement something new in an organization, employers must clearly communicate to employees what is expected of them and what steps the organization is taking to protect their employees. Additionally, providing employees a chance to voice their challenges and their concerns will help employers recognize problems with their return-to-work plans. Further, now is a good time to consider, if the organization has not already, providing employees access to an employee assistance plan (EAP). Employee assistance plans (EAPs) provide employees and their dependents with access to mental health professionals and others, who are able to assist them with challenges that they are facing either within or outside of the work environment.
Employers who are still in the planning process, or who have a plan already in place must make it a point to continually visit the state’s pandemic website, the Department of Labor’s (DOL’s) website, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, the Occupational Health and Safety Administrations (OSHAs) website, and other reputable sources to aid in creating, and if necessary revising their plan to reopen their organizations. In doing so, employers will be armed with the most up-to-date guidance and information related to COVID-19 and will be able to understand how it may impact their business and their employees as they move forward towards their new normal. Many employers were blindsided by this pandemic, so now is as good of a time as any to debrief on how your organization responded to this pandemic, and implement the necessary protocols and plans to be prepared for when another similar crisis occurs in the future.
For additional information related to creating a plan to return employees to work following a pandemic, please contact us at www.NewFocusHR.com
Patrick McKenna, SHRM-CP