Around the globe countries are steadily relaxing the most stringent lockdown measures. But for employers there are a myriad of concerns. Preparing for the return to work can be a daunting task, as no person or organisation has ever navigated a situation like this one before. The primary goal is a return to operations that keep business running and profitable.
However, it’s vital to acknowledge that this is a time of high anxiety for all employees. The shift to return to work is a momentous one and the biggest hurdle that employers need to overcome is how to instil confidence in their employees and assure them that they are returning to a safe place.
For months now, the message across the globe has been clear: stay home in order to save lives – your own, your family’s, those of healthcare workers and the community at large. The question then becomes: what can be done to ensure that employees are properly prepared for a return to the office or worksite?
Communication is key
It is more important than ever to foster a culture where employees are informed, and their voices are heard. Beyond the standard issues of budgets and projections and the bottom line, being a business leader means acknowledging that your employees are under an incredible amount of stress from several different sources. Duty of care has taken on an entirely new meaning in this pandemic world and the way in which organisations handle the return to work is critical.
A webinar or series of communications prior to the return to work will be an essential first step in the process of building confidence that work is, and will continue to be, a safe place. This should focus on entry checks, changes to the workplace such as ventilation, disinfection, personal space protocols, use of technology and personal protective equipment, such as face coverings. There should be a review of any changes to flexible sick leave policies and alternative work schedules. Employees will also need clear direction around the availability of support services, as well as a process to report any concerns regarding the safety of work practices, on an anonymous basis if appropriate.
The re-opening process should begin with a survey to employees enquiring what their main concerns are around the return to work. Once onsite work has resumed, regular town hall-style meetings and information sessions should be scheduled to keep people updated. These sessions may need to be held on a virtual platform in order to adhere to social distancing guidelines. If resources allow, a task force of HR and leaders from different business units should be created. This team can help manage and address concerns that are raised by employees.
Anyone who will be returning to the office must be pre-screened through a digital questionnaire app or survey prior to arriving at the site. This process assesses whether the individual has tested positive or experienced symptoms related to COVID-19 in the past 14 days. It can also be a useful tool to focus the mind of the employee on the symptoms they should be watching out for on a daily basis.
Upon entry on the first day of return, the information provided should be reviewed for each individual, which is a process that can be automated by the app. If the responses reflect that the person is at low risk for infection, they will then be cleared to proceed to a temperature screening station.
Alternatively, if the data provided gives cause for concern, the individual should be immediately referred to the organisation’s medical helpline and sent for testing. In the event of a positive COVID-19 test, the individual should have their building access restricted for a 14-day period from the onset of symptoms. In order to regain access, he or she must be fever-free for at least 72 hours and be symptom-free for at least seven days. Technically, an individual is considered symptom-free if their only remaining symptom is a persistent, but improving, cough. However, this could increase anxieties for colleagues and create discord in the working environment. This may have to be a case-by-case determination, depending on the role of the person and the proximity to others required by the job function.
While it is widely acknowledged that some individuals with COVID-19 never present with symptoms and many are contagious for a couple of days before symptoms appear, it is also thought that people are most contagious around the time when symptoms first develop. For that reason, it is beneficial from a practical standpoint and reassuring to all employees to have temperatures recorded for anyone entering the premises.
Upon completion and review of the pre-screening questions and arrival at the site, people should have their temperature taken. This should be performed by an individual wearing appropriate PPE (personal protective equipment) and a no-contact, infra-red “gun” thermometer. The temperature scanning process should be repeated, and recorded, each time a person enters the building.
Anyone cleared to enter the site after the pre-site screening and temperature scan should be issued an access wrist band. This band must be worn by everyone on site. Ideally, said bands would incorporate a vibrating alert, and possibly an auditory alarm (as long as this does not cause any potential health and safety issues, such as workers at height), to ensure that all employees maintain appropriate distance from one another.
Where appropriate, the bands could also be colour-coded to denote specific work zones. In order to minimise unnecessary contact between work groups and encourage distancing, a system of zones would reduce contact, and also make contact tracing more efficient in the case of a confirmed case among the workforce.
Your organisation must clearly outline visitor policies for a pandemic world. Any non-employee entering the site must be permitted to do so only for reasons critical to the business and/or management of the facility. Depending on the size of the organisation, any visitors must be pre-approved by HR and have their name on a list prior to being permitted entry.
They will then be subject to the standard pre-site screening and temperature scan. In addition, they must be issued a visitor badge stating the area(s) of the site they are permitted to be in. This is an additional benefit of the aforementioned colour-coded zones. Visitors must wear a face covering for the duration of their visit and maintain proper social distancing at all times.
Staggered shifts and flexible work policies
While it would be nice to think that upon re-opening, things will promptly return to the way they once were, that simply is not the case. There must be a certain level of understanding around difficulties presented by home life or transportation. For example, parents – particularly single parents or those who have partners that are healthcare/essential workers, must be considered. If schools and daycare facilities remain closed or on a limited schedule, flexibility must be offered.
As a general rule, employees should continue to be permitted to work from home as much as possible where their role allows. This minimises onsite headcount at any given time and subsequently limits the risk of infection for all employees. Staggered shifts will also become necessary as a means to decrease the number of people coming through entrances and screening stations at a given time. In cases where use of public transport is relied upon, staggered shifts also minimise exposure during the busiest travel periods of the working day.
By Dr Adrian Hyzler, chief medical officer at Healix International/HX Global