COVID-19: Back To Work Employer Guide To Safeguard Workplace And Employees
“Ring! Ring!” Your alarm goes off. You look at the time. You think to yourself, “That’s odd. I still have another hour of sleep.” Right before you nod off again, you realize: that’s right! It’s your first day back to REAL work. You have some getting ready and driving to do. You’re returning to the office for the first time since having transitioned to remote work, and you’re excited. However, things won’t be exactly the same.
With a stay at home orders lifting, many businesses are getting ready to open the doors once again. Whether your workplace is an office, store, or something entirely different, it is important to take the steps you can to minimize risks for customers and employees.
There are a lot of changes coming in the near future, and it’s a little overwhelming to think about. This is a guide detailing ways to deal with different situations that will arise as customers and employees walk back through your business’ door.
Social Distancing Protocols and Implementation
As regulations relax and businesses open back up the question becomes, how do we continue being safe while getting back to work? Social distancing is still one of the best ways to help keep customers and employees safe.
When you see your co-workers for the first time face-to-face in months it is tempting to greet them with the usual hug or handshake. It’s best to discourage this type of behavior and instead come up with alternatives that can be used.
When workers are back, try to make accommodations to allow employees to be 6 feet apart from both each other and customers. Try to keep this distance at all times (CDC).
If your office utilizes shared desks or office spaces, it is best to end this practice if at all possible (Dallas). Some changes businesses are making in their offices are separating individual workspaces and putting up privacy panels.
Another tactic being used is turning workspaces away from each other so that they are facing out (Dallas). The World Health Organization is recommending all employee seating be at least 1 meter away from each other.
It may also be best to cut down on uses of communal areas and to suspend employees gathering together in areas like copier or break rooms. Having employees eat by themselves at their desks and not sharing food are also risk-decreasing practices (Rockefeller).
If your workplace has employees that commute on public transportation, there are steps that can be taken to help minimize the risk they are in getting to work.
Encourage employees to come to work on transportation that requires little contact. If employees have to commute on busses, offer reimbursement for parking or single-occupancy ride shares to encourage safer traveling habits.
If employees do use ride shares, inform them that it would be best if they kept the windows open for improved ventilation (CDC).
Social distancing is a hard, but achievable goal even in the workplace. Keeping appropriate distance and having company social distancing policies will help keep employees and customers safer.
How many employees should be allowed to work initially
The CDC guideline says it is highly unlikely that most employees will be able to return back to work due to factors like curfews and relocated residences.
The ones that are considering returning, should return based on limited restrictions and should only return if it is necessary in order to provide the business services.
All workers that are an essential part of the business’ needs should be the first priority. These workers should follow policies like social distancing and increased sanitation.
Employees that are returning, should attend on alternating days to reduce the number of workers at a time in the facility. The business could also consider bringing the workers back in small phases or certain days every week.
Avoid returning older employees to work initially since they are more prone to illness. While the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidance does not require employers to provide accommodations to older employees, due to the White House Guidance employers are encouraged to highly consider providing these accommodations to the vulnerable population to avoid the risk of illness.
The increased risk of developing COVID-19 symptoms is unknown for pregnant employees. This means employees are not required to provide reasonable accommodation and the employer cannot discriminate against a pregnant employee to stay home.
Depending on your state, there are laws that require employers to work with pregnant employees to provide them with reasonable accommodation so they can do their job effectively.
Employee Guidelines to Workplace Safety
The most important thing employees that are still in the workplace can do during this time is let their supervisor know that they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and go home.
They should also tell their supervisor if they have a family member at home with COVID-19. They should not go back to work until they have satisfied the CDC criteria to discontinue home isolation and talked to a healthcare provider.
For employees not experiencing symptoms, prevention is key. Employers can help by educating workers about steps to protect themselves at work and at home such as:
- Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
- Use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available. If hands are visibly dirty, they should use soap and water over hand sanitizer.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when sneezing or coughing and use your elbow when tissue isn’t available. Throw used tissues into no-touch trash cans and immediately wash your hands
Modify the Workplace
There are lots of changes employers can implement to make employees and visitors feel safer in the workplace. The Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) breaks these controls into four categories: Engineering Controls, Administrative Controls, Safe Work Practices, and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
The goal of engineering controls is to isolate employees from work-related hazards that could lead to exposure. Some of the recommended controls are installing high-efficiency air filters, increasing ventilation rates in the work environment, installing physical barriers like plastic sneeze guards, and installing a drive-through window for customer service.
Administrative controls are usually changes in policies or procedures to reduce exposure to a hazard. A few changes employers can implement are reducing or changing hours spent in the office, minimizing contact between employees and customers, discontinuing non-essential travel, and giving workers up-to-date education and training.
Safe work practices are types of administrative controls. An example of these practices is providing resources to create a hygienic work environment such as tissues, hand sanitizer, and a place to wash your hands. Other examples include requiring regular hand washing or use of hand sanitizer and posting hand-washing signs near all sinks.
Personal Protective Equipment is less effective than the former controls, but it may be needed to prevent certain forms of exposure. Some types of PPE are gloves, goggles, face masks, and respiratory protection.
Reduce the work hours
This guidance depends on how well the office is able to obey social distancing rules. Companies should provide flexible work with staggered work hours/shifts.
This means, having a small number of employees come into the office to conduct work while the rest work remotely.
Switching which days a group/team comes into work will also ensure that employees are conducting operations with a reduced workflow. This will minimize the number of individuals in common areas like hallways, entrances, exits, etc.
Develop and Maintain Good Cleaning and Hygiene Habits
Using the correct cleaning supplies and having high hygiene expectations for employees is important as employees return to work.
It is important to know that not all products are acceptable to clean surfaces with when the aim is to prevent COVID-19. The EPA has a service online that will allow you to check if the product has been approved against SARS-CoV-2(CDC).
It is important not only to make sure that the correct kind of cleaners are being used, but that they are being left on the surface for the correct amount of time.
A table can be found on the EPA website that shows how long each individual cleaning product should sit on a surface. If it has been more than 7 days since a sick employee has used the space extra disinfection is not required (CDC).
However, It is still recommended that highly touched surfaces are routinely cleaned (CDC). Make sure your employees are trained to use cleaning supplies safely and know to never mix bleach with other cleaning products as that may cause dangerous fumes (CDC).
Provide your employees with the necessary cleaning supplies to stay safe. This includes distributing disinfecting wipes, providing masks, and having soap and water or 60 percent or more hand sanitizer available (CDC).
Make sure to have no-touch trash cans in the office to make it easy and safe for employees to dispose of used wipes and tissues (CDC).
To help protect employees even further, have employees clean their hands as soon as they enter and send out scheduled hand washing reminders via email (CDC).
Increasing ventilation by opening windows and not using air recycling can help keep a cleaner environment and reduce risk (CDC).
Another area to be aware of is lunch time and cafeterias. Food sharing can be a source of germ sharing so limit it is possible. This could be accomplished by switching out the company potluck or share-style catering for sandwiches that come individually packaged.
If your workplace has a cafeteria make sure there are even more health screening for the workers and their close contacts. Making sure cafeteria staff is particularly healthy is incredibly important to prevent a mass office outbreak.
This should not just apply to if the workers themselves are feeling sick, but also if an in-house family member is feeling unwell.
Lastly, to maintain good hygiene it is important to monitor the well-being of employees and make sure they know it’s okay to stay home.
This should not just apply to if the worker themselves is feeling sick, but also if someone they live with is feeling unwell (CDC). Make sure your employees know that if they do not feel well, they will be able to count time off as sick leave.
This will encourage co-workers to be honest about their own possible exposure and when they feel unwell (CDC).
Provide and Encourage the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
PPE is a workplace control that can help prevent certain exposures. All types of PPE must be chosen based upon the hazard to the worker, fitted and periodically refitted, consistently and correctly worn when required, regularly inspected and replaced, and removed, cleaned, and stored in a safe place.
In order to encourage workers to use PPE in the workplace, it’s wise for employers to provide it. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA), recommendations for PPE specific to occupations or job tasks may change based on geographic location, update risk assessment for workers, and information on its effectiveness in preventing the spread of the Corona virus.
Regularly screen the health of employees and visitors
The CDC recommends that all employers take measures like screening their employees and visitors daily. The screening should take place before they enter the workplace. Visitors will be screened upon arrival while employees will be screened at the start of their shift.
During the screening ask the following questions:
Have you presented any of the following symptoms since your last visit:
- Shortness of breath
- At least two of the following symptoms:
- Muscle pain
- Repeated shaking
- Sore throat
- Loss of taste or smell
If they are positive for any of the stated symptoms, point them to medical help and restrict access to the workplace.
Are you currently ill or caring for someone who is ill in your household?
- If they aren’t ill but are caring for a sick family member, contact your supervisor.
- If they are confirmed to have COVID-19, inform employees with potential exposure but maintain their confidentiality
Using PPE like face shields and gloves, measure employees’ and visitors’ temperatures using a touchless thermometer.
These screenings should be done outside of the workplace or near an entrance. Make sure the individual doing the screening is implementing proper safety measures and maintaining privacy.
Conducting Interviews and Hiring
One effect of the pandemic employers need to be thinking about is hiring new employees. If you don’t know exactly how long your office will be continuing remotely, you need to choose applicants who can thrive in both a virtual and in-person workplace.
This changes every part of the hiring process starting with selecting applicants. Because working from home takes so much discipline and self-motivation, having remote work on a resume is a huge asset right now. Take notice of applicants who have worked remotely and the duration of the position.
A lot of talented, motivated people have been laid off due to the current circumstances. This is good news for employers whose industry is in high demand and need to find employees who can quickly adapt to a new position.
Once you find candidates with great application material, the next step is to interview them. Many people faced with this task are staying on the safe side and moving to virtual interviews. While certain aspects of a face-to-face interview are lost in a video chat, there are benefits to think about.
One benefit is that they save time: the chances of an interviewee being late go down when you take out the travel time, and interviewers can schedule more people in a day because they don’t have to be as spaced out. A strategy employers can utilize is to set the interview early in the morning and take notice of the candidate’s appearance.
Take note of whether they look like they rolled out of bed and threw on a clean shirt or spent time preparing their appearance and environment. This can tell you a lot about the effort this applicant is willing to put in for the position.
If you do choose to conduct an in-person interview, there are several ways you can make the interviewee feel safer. First, immediately go in for an elbow or fist bump.
The candidate might be worried about this interaction, so it will help to avoid an awkward interaction if the interviewer initiates it. Next, be sure to wash your hands before and after the interview and make it clear that the interviewee can wash their hands too.
Make sure the interview location allows you to be 6-feet apart from the candidate and that others in the office are socially distant as well because you may not know if the candidate you’ve invited into the office is vulnerable to the virus.
After you send out offers and receive acceptances, you have to help get them started. The key to managing a new team remotely is to keep spirits high to help people stay motivated.
Routines are everything. Keep your schedule organized and help new workers get into a rhythm. One thing you can do to raise employees’ spirits is to hold a virtual lunch on zoom and charge it to the company.
Everyone can order in their favorite meals, relax, and get back some form of socialization they’ve lost since they switched to online work.
Employee Attendance Management
A functional idea for businesses to incorporate is replacing elements in the office that require touch. This may include gadgets like kiosks or anything with a touch screen.
To keep track of attendance management, employers might consider investing in a facial recognition-based attendance system. These systems allow their employees to enter their workplace without touching anything in their environment.
The recognition system allows you to add your employee’s photos in the system and grants them entry when it recognizes their face. Companies could also add a face mask detector system into their workplace.
This will detect when an employee or visitor doesn’t have a mask on and alert the employer. Having a face mask detector ensures all your employees and guests are wearing their protective gear to minimize exposure.
The employees that are essential for the business will be in the office while the ones that can do their job from home, will work remotely. The essential workers can alternate in waves everyday or every few days.
This could mean you could have the same group of people for a few days in a row or alternate daily. Depending on the size of your office, the groups could vary from 5-15. When the employees aren’t in the office, they should continue their work remotely in the most efficient way possible.
This will divide the number of hours equally among employees while balancing their family needs with work. The employees that are in the office will still need to follow protocols like social distancing.
Everyone should be seated in desks six feet apart and avoid sharing office supplies. They should also keep away from going into shared spaces, like the break room, as much as possible to prevent spreading.
What Employee Policies Need to be Updated
- Cleaning/Disinfection: Ensure frequent hand washing for all employees. Place hand sanitizers in multiple locations throughout the office. Employees should wipe their desks with disinfectant wipes before leaving the office every day.
- Sick leave: Provide flexible time off to encourage employees to stay home if they think they are presenting symptoms or need to care for a family member.
- Security: This will look different for every business. If you’ve transferred all work online, you might need to take steps to safeguard confidential material or personal information.
- Health screenings: Employees and visitors will be required to do daily health screenings upon entering the building. If they show symptoms, they will be refused entry and directed to medical assistance.
- Remote work: All employees should continue their work from home unless they are advised to work from the office by their supervisor.
- Social distancing: Employees should avoid being in areas where they’re closer than six feet apart.
- Work hours: Hours will be split remotely/being in the office to reduce too many interactions at work.
Guidelines for Meetings, Conferences, Office Events and Celebrations
While it is very tempting to want to get back together with your co-workers it is important to take steps to mitigate risks for all involved parties.
If it is necessary to meet in person try to practice social distancing and keep areas sanitized. It is very important to utilize online meeting software to separate from each other, even if you are working in the same building.
Any planned events or conferences that would have large gatherings of people are still being discouraged by the CDC. When deciding whether a larger gathering is necessary it is important to consider what areas attendees will be coming from and whether those in attendance are older adults in the high-risk category (CDC).
Many large conferences are moving online if possible or rescheduling for a later safer date. These online events may even allow your company or extra employees to go even if it was not originally in your budget.
Office events and celebrations may not be able to happen in person, but they can still take place over video conferencing software.
Instead of buying a cake for someone’s birthday, the office can send them a gift card or have a sweet treat delivered to their place of residence. It is important to continue to celebrate others and maintain office traditions even if it can only be accomplished virtually.
Employee Travel Guideline Changes
It comes as no surprise that with the COVID-19 outbreak across the globe, international travel, or even travel on a national scale, will not be the same. It is important that new guidelines be put in place to slow the spread of the virus.
Some states or countries have different regulations or case response methods, so travelers must be informed before considering taking a trip. With this ever-evolving pandemic, how should businesses handle the issue of employee travel?
First, travel is highly cautioned. If travel can be avoided, it is recommended. There are alternatives to this, one of the most common being meetings or business conducted virtually using platforms like Zoom or Slack.
However, if business cannot be moved to an online platform, it is suggested that travel is postponed until the spread of the virus slows. Fewer personnel might be required for in-person meetings, as well.
Travel to specific countries or regions of the United States might be cautioned for longer periods of time, and this is all dependent on cases and spread of the virus in those particular areas.
Some countries might continue a longer travel ban into and out of the country for that specific reason. Another important thing to consider is that just because a travel ban is lifted doesn’t mean that it is entirely safe to travel to that country.
If there is more traffic in a certain region, for example, that place is more likely to be a hotspot for future cases. These are all things that an employee and employer must consider when traveling.
WHO says that if employees travel, even to areas that don’t have a high rate of infected persons, that general hygiene should be frequent and intentional: washing hands thoroughly, using hand sanitizer, and practicing cough etiquette, to name a few.
If an employee travels to infected areas, it is recommended that they self-monitor for symptoms of the virus for 14 days after their return; some businesses are mandating a 14 day quarantine after employees return from travel. Should symptoms arise, employees should immediately contact health care providers.
Additionally, if travel is unavoidable, there are some methods of transportation that are preferable to others. If you are traveling a short distance, isolated travel is preferred because the less exposure to other people, the slighter chance of contracting the virus.
Using a car for travel is safer than traveling alongside dozens of other passengers on a plane or train, for example. If a plane must be used, Delta AFA, a union of flight attendants, has been working to make changes so that employees and passengers alike can have a mask for the flight, and extra sanitary precautions are being taken between flights as well.
For the most part, companies have stopped mandating that their employees are required to travel. If an employee is not comfortable with the prospect of travel, they should not be reprimanded for that decision.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management, “Employers are obligated under the Occupational Safety and Health Act to provide a workplace free of known safety and health hazards, and workers have a right to refuse work that they consider to be dangerous under certain circumstances.”
Managing discipline can be tricky during these times. Employers must follow strict actions to control the behavior of their employees.
All employees will be required to follow standard policies and the updated policies of the business. Rejecting these policies could lead to a termination of their position.
One thing to remember during these rapidly-changing circumstances is to be sensitive to your employees’ situations. Worrying about job security and the well-beings of those around you can cause a lot of stress that could affect one’s job performance.
Consider temporarily changing your disciplinary action policies to accommodate issues that have arisen during this time. Also, stay updated on employees’ rights to refuse work and make sure your actions are within your rights and their rights.
As you go to bed after a successful first day back at work, you know that you’ve set your workplace up for a safe return to normal. Well, the new normal. All of these safety precautions are going to be integral in the next phase of uncertainty. With that in mind, you set your alarm and nod off, only to hear your “Ring! Ring!” again too soon.
Times like these can be confusing. Following this Fidentity guide will help smooth the transition of returning employees back to work in the safest way possible.