The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the daily business operations like never before. Businesses resorted to remote working, to continue their operations in a risk-free manner, leaving their offices, factories, and retail stores empty and devoid of staff. In the wake of the pandemic, businesses have urged a majority of their workforce to adopt remote working as a means of staying safe from the ongoing pandemic. With the lockdown restriction easing, businesses plan to resume normal operations soon. But they realize that returning to normalcy is a gradual and phased process involving a multi-pronged approach. The employer’s prime concern while planning a return to work program would be to ensure their health and safety.
— FBS (@FBSbenefits) October 28, 2020
By allowing your team to return to work, businesses need to analyze the risks and uncertainties involved in doing so. To mitigate these risks, it is of prime importance that companies meticulously implement a Return To Work Program to navigate their staff through this disruption.
This program should identify all the potential risks at the workplace and chart the necessary measures to keep these risks in check. By adequately implementing such a planned and phased return to work, you demonstrate that your company cares about its employees’ safety, health, and well-being. Traditionally, a Return to Work plan acts as a support system for injured workers to transition back into work as soon as possible. On re-joining, they face many challenges, and it is the employer’s responsibility to make their induction back into work as smoothly as possible.
This article illustrates a similar Return to Work program for employees working remotely for an extended period due to the pandemic. From an employee’s perspective, a return to work program will ease their transition back to work. Here are some ways by which businesses can ensure the safe return of employees to their offices:
Getting Started with a Return to Work Program
1. Incorporate a Return to work planning Team
Create a team of members from various departments of the organization such as HR, IT, Health and safety, etc. who are accountable for developing and implementing an RTW program. A senior leader from each department should be a part of this Return to Work planning team to speak on behalf of their department. Such a unit can implement a well-rounded Return To work plan that takes into account everyone’s perspective. This planning team should also be responsible for monitoring the program once the employees return to the office.
#NV5 reduces their clients’ exposure to COVID-19 and other pathogens with a world-class team of industrial hygienists. That’s why we’re proud this 2020 HotFirm chose #ARC to produce #returntowork graphics in the U.S., making a safe workplace for employees and visitors alike. pic.twitter.com/wzI3oAWJ0s
— Marco Garcia (@MarcoGarcia1569) October 28, 2020
2. Fix a particular date for employees to return to work
Intimate the employees well in advance about the possibility of returning to work and fix a specific date for their return. The covid-19 virus’s uncertainty has resulted in a workplace hazard that has become a source of anxiety for many. Informing the reopening of offices in advance will give the employees ample time to mentally prepare themselves for returning to the workplace.
3. It is essential to get an idea about how your staff feels about returning to work.
Some might be enthusiastic about finally returning to the office space, while others might have become accustomed to working from home and might be reluctant. Certain others could be fearful of returning to the workplace, afraid of contracting the virus. Some employees could be more susceptible to the virus due to pre-existing medical conditions and their age. A good way the employer could get a pulse of the employee sentiment would be sending them employee surveys. By understanding the employee attitude, the Return to Work Team could begin to form an appropriate plan.
4. Physical sanitation of the office space is essential for getting back to work
The COVID-19 virus stays on the surface for a long time. It is of high priority that the firm cleans the frequently touched surfaces in the workplace such as desks, keyboards, and equipment every day at fixed intervals.
5. Digital sanitation is also the need of the hour.
Remote working employees would have downloaded various software or games in their systems. Some of these systems might be connected to the business’s network. When these employees return to work, their devices should be checked for viruses and other malware.
6. Encourage social distancing at the workplace
Encourage employees to practise social distancing by maintaining 6 feet distance from other workers, preventing gatherings of more than eight people, and discourage the shaking of hands.
Thanks @JoeTeape, Chief Operating Officer and Derek Sandeman, Medical Director at @UHSFT for demonstrating #socialdistancing as part of the #COVIDZERO campaign! (thanks to @mahobia_nitin for the photo) #COVID19 pic.twitter.com/wtohCEHNHq
— UHS Infection Prevention Team (@UHS_IPT) October 30, 2020
7. Going back to work: Bring back only the essential employees
All the employees cannot be brought back in one go. The proper way to implement a phased return to work program would be by prioritizing only essential workers’ return. To avoid overcrowding at the workplace, the firm should see to it that only the necessary and critical employees are brought back- This is to limit the number of employees present at the same time in a single location. Make a priority list of all the essential employees that need to be present onsite. Analyzing which roles were more comfortable to transition to remote working and which roles were not would help chalk out plans for who all needs to work onsite and those who have to work remotely.
8. Flexible Work Schedules and Staggered work times
Alternatively, the business could also include staggered work times or rotational shifts. Staggered work times provide the employee with flexible timings to choose their start and end times according to their personal preferences. Apart from this, employees could take turns working remotely and onsite, working on alternate days, and you may consider changing schedules by adding new shifts. By adopting flexible shifts and timing, crowding at workplaces can be minimized to a great extent.
9. Going back to work – Employee screening
Before the employee can enter the workplace premises, their body temperature must be screened to identify those employees with a higher body temperature. Employees should be notified beforehand before such screening takes place. Proper measures should be undertaken to enable Employee screening to take place without any discrimination.
10. Advice employees to stay home when sick.
If they are exhibiting symptoms of covid-19(Common Cold, breathlessness, fever, and loss of the sense of taste), they should be encouraged to stay at home until these symptoms subside.
11. Educate your staff on the importance of workplace safety and hygiene.
Remind them of the importance of ensuring good hygiene to prevent the spread of the virus. Workplaces should:
- Provide soap and water for frequent hand sanitization
- Place hand sanitizers at multiple locations within
- Remind employees to avoid touching the nose, mouth, eyes, etc.
- Remind employees to change their masks/face shields every 6 hours.
- Always encourage employees to practice social distancing protocols.
12. Implement Workplace controls for getting back to work
The office layout may have to be altered to adhere to social distancing protocols. Workplaces may have to be altered to maintain 6 feet distance between the employees. Consider utilizing wayfinding and signage to ensure employees can easily navigate common spaces and avoid overcrowding in elevators, pantry area, and open spaces. Leverage the use of posters in common areas to describe best practices and tips. Limit the number of people who attend meetings. If a large meeting must be held, it is always preferable to do it via video conference.
Another strategy to avoid overcrowding would be to use separate entry and exit points to the office. The conventional ways of working will have to give way to more flexible and unconventional ways of working. It will take time for the staff to get acclimatized to the office’s new layout and new working ways.
13. Dealing with medical emergencies
Moreover, you may have to implement a process for the identification of sick people. In the event of an employee developing COVID symptoms at the workplace, a plan should be prepared beforehand on how to isolate the employee and prevent possible crowding in the case of a medical emergency. The sick employee should be isolated from the other employees as swiftly as possible.
14. Commuting services for going back to work
Staff that rely on public transportation or carpooling to commute to and from the workplace are at a higher risk of getting infected. A possible step that companies can take is to provide commuting services to such employees.
15. Refusal to Return to work:
Some employees may refuse to return to work for various reasons. They may be diagnosed with COVID-19 or be exhibiting its symptoms and might be in quarantine. Others may wish to continue remote working due to fear of returning or a preference for remote working due to it’s a convenience. Certain others may have obligations at home: Elder parents to care for or children to look after. Other employees may be the ones who are at a high risk of being susceptible to the virus. Your Return to Work plan must take into account employees who may refuse to return to the office, and your company should have a process in place for responding to these requests for continued work from home. The HR of your organization must be actively involved in developing these processes.
16. Response Plan for Recurrence of infections
History repeats itself. Just like how the Spanish flu of 1918 had a recurrence, scientists have predicted that there might be a second wave or a recurrence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Your Return To Work plan should factor in that possibility and be prepared for a second bout of the virus attack. In case that happens, you should have an appropriate response plan to implement.
17. Guidance and Support for going back to work
The ongoing pandemic has raised everyone’s stress levels, and most employees are worried about the current situation. As a result of long periods of isolation, some employees may feel anxious about returning to the office. Encourage social interaction and allow employees to reconnect with each other while maintaining social distancing protocols.
The management should address all their concerns and queries to help them navigate through these difficult times. As an employer, you should prioritize both their physical as well as mental and emotional health.
18. Two-way communication
Along with implementing this plan, you also need to monitor this program’s effectiveness for all the employees. One way to monitor effectiveness is by gaining feedback from your staff. They should be given a chance to make their concerns known, and by ensuring two-way communication, one can foster an open workplace culture.
Wrapping it up..
Reopening your business is the next phase of response to the pandemic. It has to be implemented in a phased manner with high priority given to employee safety. Right now, returning to normalcy is what every business is aiming for- Carrying out your daily tasks amid the ongoing pandemic is the new normal. But this new normal cannot be attained overnight. To usher in the Future of Work, businesses must act now to navigate the many challenges that returning to work poses. These challenges can be alleviated by planning and implementing a systematic return to work plan at the earliest. Also, on the bright side, it’s always wise to look into the positive impacts of Covid-19 as businesses reopen following the government guidelines and recommendations.