Best Practices for Returning to Work Safely

If you’re one of the thousands of employees who transitioned to remote work in the wake of COVID-19, you’re likely wondering when and how you’re going to return to work. And if you’re one of the thousands of employers that has transitioned to remote work, you’re likely wondering the same thing.

While every state has begun to reopen in some capacity, many privately held organizations are hesitant to return to work. Even if a company does choose to go back, there are stringent regulations that must be followed, and often resistance by employees. Nearly 6 in 10 Americans polled expressed fear that they might be exposed to COVID-19 at work and bring it back to their homes.

Because of these concerns, many organizations are delaying, altering, or altogether cancelling return-to-work plans. SHRM researchers found that 68% of organizations “probably” or “definitely” will allow for more flexible work policies in the future, and another 30% are planning on allowing their employees to continue to work remotely through at least the end of the year.

Companies are basing the decision on factors like location, company size, office costs, average commute times, technological capabilities, and overall employee productivity levels since transitioning to online work. 

If you’re one of the organizations who is leaning towards returning to work soon, you’re not alone – 53% say they’re aiming to get back to the office by the end of July. Here are five tips on how you can do so safely:

1. Implement Social Distancing

Proper social distancing is essential when returning to work. Try to space out desks and lunch tables whenever possible. Host smaller in-person meetings and, when possible, have some (or all) participants call or video chat into the meeting. Put up signs reminding employees and customers alike to mind the 6-foot distance. And of course, insist that your employees and clients wear masks whenever possible. While N95 masks are by far the most effective and should be used whenever possible, a recent review by The Lancet found that even cotton masks are at least somewhat helpful in preventing COVID-19 transmission.

Furthermore, consider bringing your team back in waves, prioritizing those employees whose presence in the office is most critical. You can also stagger schedules so that your office is never at full capacity. When it comes to hiring new talent, rely on measures like phone calls, video interviews and pre-employment testing rather than hosting in-person interviews.

2. Prioritize Sanitation

Office cleanliness is always ideal, but during a pandemic, it is crucial. Install hand sanitizer stations around the office and antibacterial soap in bathrooms. Get rid of any communal snacks (candy bins, pretzels), soda machines, or drinking fountains and replace them with water bottles and pre-packaged snacks. Finally, have your office professionally cleaned as frequently as possible, provide employees disinfectant wipes for their personal belongings, and open windows to promote airflow.

3. Monitor Cases and Symptoms

Rigorous monitoring of your staff’s health can help limit the spread of COVID-19 in your office. Mandate temperature checks of any person entering your office space by thermometer or thermal scanner. If an employee reports that they have had the virus, insist that they stay home for a minimum of two weeks and provide a positive antibody test on their return. Furthermore, have employees periodically fill out health evaluations and symptom checks and report whether they have been in contact with anyone who has contracted the virus.

4. Be Flexible 

When determining how to bring your team back to the office, be as flexible as possible. Send out surveys and talk to employees about when and how they would be most comfortable returning. Try to grant accommodations whenever you can on a case-to-case basis. Is an employee a caretaker of an elderly family member who has fled their nursing home for fear of exposure? Are they tending to young children whose daycare or school has been shut down? Do they have a severe medical condition that makes them more susceptible to contracting (or dying from) the disease?

When granting exceptions to your return-to-work plan, make sure you’re taking all relevant factors into account. Offering additional paid sick leave is also a great way to encourage any ill employees to stay at home and ensure that your return to the office is a safe one.

5. Keep Your Team Informed

A recent survey shared with Fortune found that employees’ biggest fear about returning to their office is their coworkers’ behavior. Countless Americans cringe at the idea of their peers not washing their hands, attending crowded parties, forgoing masks, or otherwise disregarding health recommendations. If a person exposes themselves to the virus, they risk bringing the disease back to work and infecting all of their associates. While your company can’t control what your staff does after hours, you can distribute information on how to make good choices and what to do if they’re exposed to the virus.

To keep your team informed, host virtual meetings or distribute pamphlets with essential COVID-19 resources. Ensure that your team knows how to avoid COVID-19, what symptoms might look like if they do contract the disease, and where they can get tested. Educate them on the risks of exposure and how to mitigate exposure whenever possible.

Navigating a safe return to work during a pandemic is a large responsibility. The key to a successful resumption in-person functioning is extensive preparation. Implement social distancing, sanitization, case monitoring, and employee education programs to limit the spread of the virus in your workspace. Furthermore, create a flexible return-to-work plan to benefit your most at-risk team members. With the proper planning, your organization can return to normal functioning safely, efficiently, and without fear.