Thursday, May 21, 2020

Pandemic Challenges: Returning to the Office

We are starting to bring back some employees to our main office. They have a choice to work remotely or return, whatever works for them. Some employees have been infected, and others know people who have died from the coronavirus.

Our offices have a lot of open cubicles and open areas, so everyone is potentially exposed to COVID-19 issues. We want to make the space as safe as possible. We hired a consultant and did some mandatory training, but that is not having the effects we want. The consultant told us what we already know, and the training, based on our survey, did not increase confidence. So, now what? We’re frustrated.

Is there some game plan that we can follow to give people the confidence to return to the office?

Realistically, we can’t expect people to return to the office until they feel safe. Passing laws that lift the shelter-at-home requirement does not necessarily increase confidence, especially when the science and medical advice run counter to a government edict. People instinctively know that they must protect themselves, their families, and one another. You can’t legislate away the risk of contracting COVID-19.

As we go to press, the United States has confirmed 1,596,526 cases, 370,973 recovered cases, and sadly 95,057 deaths.[i] 

It is heartbreaking - all those precious lives lost! 

To understand these numbers, add the recovered cases and the deaths. Those equal 466,030. Using that total, the recovered cases (370,973) equal 80%, and the deaths (95,057) equal 20%. We may quibble about the criteria used for the statistic, but we can’t really argue about the substantial loss of life. 

Unfortunately, insufficient testing and contact tracing mean that people do not actually know their true exposure.

So, it is not surprising that employees are reluctant to return to the office.

Since March 16th, my firm has been providing a free Business Continuity Plan Checklist & Workbook, Includes COVID-19 Pandemic Response to help you navigate business continuity and the COVID-19 pandemic. It is currently in Update # 6. Update # 7 is about to be published. So, if you haven’t downloaded it yet, do so HERE. I believe it will help.

I have a few suggestions to encourage a safe office environment for returning employees. Other employees may gradually gain the confidence to return if you provide a consistent, reliable, and sincere approach. Let’s check a few actions you might want to implement. These suggestions are not meant to be comprehensive.

Meet Frequently
Schedule mandatory meetings to discuss COVID-91 pandemic challenges and updates.
  1. Meetings should be held in the office and remotely at least once a week – or more often if there’s important news.
  2. Use PowerPoints and personal interest stories to build confidence and knowledge.
  3. Use the meetings to build trust and encourage feedback from employees.
  4. Materials should be easy to understand and available in the appropriate language and literacy level for all employees.
  5. Create a portal webpage for remote and office employees to obtain news about COVID-19 and the company’s pandemic response actions.

Workplace Safety
Reduce the risk of contagion by protecting the physical conditions of the office.
  1. Install high-efficiency air filters.
  2. Increase ventilation rates.
  3. Install physical barriers, such as clear plastic sneeze guards.
  4. Install a drive-through window or counter plastic sneeze guards for customer service.
  5. Provide specialized negative pressure ventilation, where possible, for settings where people may congregate.
  6. Maintain regular housekeeping practices, including routine cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces, equipment, and other elements of the work environment.

Administrative Controls
Ideally, these controls are going to require rapport and cooperation between employees and management.
  1. Encourage sick employees to stay at home – period!
  2. Require an employee who shows signs of COVID-19 to immediately go home – period!
  3. Inform and encourage employees to self-monitor for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 if they suspect possible exposure.
  4. Develop policies and procedures for employees to report when they are sick or experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.
  5. Consider offering face masks to employees and consumers as long as these individuals are in the office. Tip: If there is a shortage of masks, the CDC has advised that a reusable face shield can be decontaminated and may be an acceptable method of protecting against droplet transmission.[ii]
  6. Minimize contact among employees, clients, and consumers by replacing face-to-face meetings with virtual communications and implementing telework, if feasible.
  7. Discourage employees from using other employees’ phones, desks, offices, or other personal items, when possible.
  8. Establish alternating days or extra shifts that reduce the total number of employees in the office at a given time, allowing them to maintain distance from one another while maintaining a full on-site work week.
  9. Discontinue non-essential travel to locations with on-going COVID-19 outbreaks.
  10. Develop emergency communications plans, including a forum for answering employees’ concerns.
  11. Provide employees with up-to-date education and training on COVID-19 risk factors and protective behaviors (i.e., cough etiquette, masks, hand washing, gloves, social distancing).
  12. Train employees who need to use protecting clothing and equipment how to put it on, use/wear it, and take it off correctly, including in the context of their current and potential duties. For instance, demonstrate how to put on and take off gloves and masks.
  13. Where appropriate, limit the public’s access to the office or restrict access to only certain workplace areas.
  14. Ensure that sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance and that employees are aware of these policies.
  15. Talk with companies that provide contract or temporary employees about the importance of sick employees staying home and encourage them to develop non-punitive leave policies.
  16. Maintain flexible policies that permit employees to stay home to care for a sick family member. Note: Employers should be aware that more employees may need to stay at home to care for sick children or other sick family members than is usual.
  17. Provide on-going notices and updates involving employees’ concerns about pay, leave, safety, health, and other issues that may arise.
  18. Work with insurance companies (i.e., those providing employee health benefits) and state and local health agencies to provide information to employees and customers about medical care in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Safe Workplace Practices
Generally, you can use procedures to reduce the duration, frequency, or intensity of a hazard if you implement relatively simple practices. Here are a few suggestions.
  1. Provide resources and a work environment that promote personal hygiene. For example, provide tissues, no-touch trash cans, hand soap, alcohol-based hand rubs containing at least 60 percent alcohol, disinfectants, and disposable towels for employees to clean their work surfaces.
  2. Require regular hand washing or use of alcohol-based hand rubs. According to OSHA, if soap and running water are not immediately available, provide alcohol-based hand rubs containing at least 60% alcohol.[iii]
  3. Post handwashing signs in restrooms.

We are all in this pandemic together. When we act, we do not act alone. Our actions affect others. Wearing a mask, for instance, is just such an action, because it protects others and simultaneously protects the person wearing the mask. When an office reopens, the best way to instill confidence is to show that the employee is not alone, because when management acts to protect its employees, it is protecting the viability of the company. Management should create that spirit, and the employees may be willing to return to the office.

Jonathan Foxx, Ph.D., MBA
Chairman & Managing Director
Lenders Compliance Group

[i] Worldometer, Coronavirus, United States 
[iii] OHSA Guidance Summary: Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 (PDF)