In many cities and states, workplaces are beginning to open their doors again and employees are returning to the office. What precautions should employers take to keep their employees safe and socially distanced?
For the past six months, about a third of Americans have been working from home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. In March, many people packed up their belongings and turned their homes into offices. Kitchen tables became makeshift desks, meetings were conducted via videoconferencing, and chatter around the water cooler shifted to chat platforms like Slack. Now, six months later, many workplaces are beginning to reopen their doors and welcome employees back to the office.
Naturally, many people have concerns about heading back to the office—especially those with compromised immune systems, preexisting conditions or family members in the home who are more susceptible to the virus. So what precautions should employers take to keep their employees safe, healthy and socially distanced?
For starters, it’s important to talk with your employees to gauge their comfort levels about returning to the office. This is easier for smaller companies, but larger businesses can use survey platforms with predetermined questions to poll employees. It’s also vital to pay attention to local and state guidelines and base business operations on the “level of disease transmission in the community and readiness to protect the safety and health of employees and customers,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In addition to polling employees about their comfort levels, here are other precautions that businesses should follow:
- Reconsider policies for high-risk employees. Employers should pay special attention to workers who are considered “high risk”—that is, people who are older, have compromised immune systems, or have severe underlying medical conditions like heart or lung disease or diabetes. Be thoughtful when addressing any concerns that these employees may have, and make it clear what steps the company is taking to protect them and keep them healthy. For instance, if employees are completing work from home, try to be accommodating and work out an arrangement that allows them to continue doing so.
- Encourage sick employees (or those who have a sick person at home) to stay home. The CDC recommends that people who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19 notify their supervisor and stay home. In addition, employers can conduct daily in-person or virtual health checks before employees enter the building. This may look like taking temperatures or having employees complete health questionnaires each morning before coming to work. Any employee who is running a fever or experiencing any symptoms should be sent home.
- Encourage social distancing. Take measures to promote social distancing, whether that’s staggering times that employees can be in the office or limiting the number of people in the office at one time. In work areas where social distancing is not an option, the CDC suggests installing transparent shields or other physical barriers to separate employees. Limit the number of people who can be on elevators at one time, and consider making stairways and hallways one way if social distancing cannot be achieved. In communal areas, remove extra chairs or space them out six feet apart to maintain social distancing. Replace frequently touched items, such as coffee pots and bulk snacks, with prepackaged and single-serve items. Encourage employees to bring their own water to limit the use of water fountains, too.
- Keep a rigorous cleaning routine. Before reopening the office, be sure to disinfect surfaces such as light switches, desks, keyboards, remote controls, bathroom fixtures, tables, kitchen appliances and phones. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed a list of cleaning products and disinfectants that can be used against COVID-19. If EPA-approved disinfectants are not available, the CDC recommends using a mixture of bleach and water or solutions with at least 70% alcohol. Routinely clean high-touch surfaces, and ask employees to wipe down their desks or workstations at the beginning and end of each day.
- Use caution with office celebrations or meetings. Now that employees are gathering again, there may be temptation to start holding meetings in conference rooms or even resume office celebrations for birthdays and work anniversaries. However, these should be conducted with caution and done virtually if possible. If in-person meetings are necessary, maintain social distancing requirements and require employees to wear masks. Avoid any workplace events where communal food or drink would be shared, and request that employees not to bring in office treats from home.
It’s important to communicate with your employees about all measures the company is taking—and will continue to take—to ensure the office is a clean, safe and healthy place to work. Send out weekly email updates, hold videoconference calls and allow employees to ask management questions, and keep an open-door policy (or open Zoom policy) if employees have concerns. Remember, the best way to reduce the spread of the coronavirus is to practice good hygiene, social distance and wear masks—and that means at the office, too.