If you’re in the process of reopening your office or you’re in the pre-planning phases, it can seem overwhelming with the amount of information that’s available concerning COVID-19. Should you reopen? How should you reopen? How can you keep employees safe while at the same time ensuring that production is back up to a bare minimum? These are all tough calls when it comes to returning to work. Most likely, you and your team have been working from home for a while, and the sudden change — even without the fear of coronavirus infection — can be a lot to handle. By putting into place the right safety protocols and cleaning strategies, you can assure your employees they can return to work confidently and productively.
Drawing Up a Back-to-Work Plan
One of the first things you’ll need to do is put all your return-to-work strategies on paper — or, most likely, in a spreadsheet. Because there are still so many unknowns in COVID-19, it’s important to first assemble a team that will help when it comes to the formulation of ideas and how to implement them practically. Following the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines and social distancing measures often looks credible on paper, yet it can be tough to implement in real-world situations. This is where a team can help you see flaws in the plan, so you can smooth them out well before anyone returns to work. Keep in mind that you need a flexible and individualized plan. The unpredictability of the pandemic and the uniqueness of every office environment compels you to be flexible with the reopening. Remember to recheck not only national guidelines but safety guidelines at the local level as well. Every state and municipality is different, and you want to make sure you’re following safety protocols to the letter.
Implementing Your Back-to-Work Plan
By this point, you’ve probably been using video conferencing for a while with your team, trying to draw up a reopening plan. Before you begin to implement the plan, check to see where your state and municipality are when it comes to transmission rates. If you’re in a pandemic “hotspot,” you may have to delay reopening until it is safer to do so.
You may have employees that don’t feel safe coming to work yet, even if, in your area, transmission rates are low. Honest communication between you and your staff is a must as you move forward. This can be unsettling to contend with, as fear and reticence to return to work is not without merit. Ensure that your plan covers all job titles and all areas of the building with respect to COVID-19 transmission. Also, make sure the plan has a safety or control measure in place for every area and job title. It can be a tough call to tell an employee they must return to work, but showing them that you have well thought out safety protocols can help ease wariness.
Using Your Plan in Phases
Depending on the nature of your business, it may not be necessary to gather the whole team together all at once. Phasing in employees is a solid idea to help keep the number of employees in the building at a low level until transmission rates are down. You can also consider a hybrid plan, where some employees come to work certain days of the week and work from home on other days.
Staying Up to Date
Keeping abreast of local and national news can be tiring, but as an employer, following COVID-19 news and orders local to your area is imperative. Transmission rates can spike suddenly. If there is a spike of cases in your area, you may want to move your return-to-work plan back to a previous phase until rates are lower again. While all employees working from home isn’t optimal, it is possible, and what’s important is keeping your team safe.
Simple Safety Strategies
There are simple things you can do, as a manager or employer, to get everyone back to the office safely. You can, and should, take more detailed steps as well, but some of the simplest employee safety strategies, such as the use of face masks, can help immensely.
How to Keep Employees Safe
“Keeping employees safe” is a tall order, because you don’t know an employee’s movements outside of the office, nor can you control those. What you can do is ensure that your office space meets all recommended local guidelines as well as CDC guidance. Keeping your employees safe is a two-way street. You need to let employees know up front that they must be honest about traveling to restricted areas or hotspots within the U.S. or abroad and also truthful about potential symptoms.
Handwashing and Sanitizing
Keeping good hygiene has been one of the most recommended practices to stamp out coronavirus transmission. You can make signage for areas, such as in the restrooms about proper handwashing, but there are more things you can do as well. Install sanitizing stations throughout the office, especially by doors, which are touched by all who go in and come out of the area. Encourage your employees to use these stations and to ensure they use proper handwashing techniques not only after using the restroom but throughout the day as well. Sanitizer is helpful but is not a replacement for soap and water — remind everyone of this.
Use of Face Masks
Let’s face it — it’s uncomfortable wearing a face mask all day — but the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and other regulatory agencies recommend the use of a face mask to prevent transmission of respiratory droplets. Many states and localities have face mask ordinances, and these should be followed in your workplace to help prevent transmission of the virus. You can take an extra step and provide employees with surgical, one-use masks if they do not have one.
Eliminating the Lunchroom
It’s wise to exclude common areas for the time being, such as the lunchroom and meeting room. If possible, employees can Zoom in-house from their desks, and they can eat up food in the lunchroom and bring it to their desk or area. While before this may have been frowned upon by the administration, it is a wise idea to help contain the spread of the virus.
Long-Lasting Safety Measures
Beyond simple safety measures, such as providing face masks and installing hand sanitizer dispensers, you may need to take more serious precautions at your workplace. Some of these may be as straightforward as interpreting data to make continual decisions about the operation of your in-house staff, or as thorough as installing new ventilation systems.
New Ventilation Systems
Some researchers believe that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection, can be spread through the air, especially in older ventilation systems. OSHA recommends the installation of high-efficiency air filters and new ventilation systems in buildings that may need it. This can be a difficult task to undertake, but installing office ventilation systems that are more modern and effective can prevent your employees from becoming ill.
Setting Up Partitions
Before COVID-19, you may have had an open, friendly-styled office with plenty of space. But now, your office space may look completely different. Office partitions and barriers are an excellent way to separate employees from one another if they were in a shared space beforehand. Not all barriers and partitions need to be permanent — you can rent office furniture and other pieces of equipment to meet your present needs, and return them when you no longer need them. Depending on how your business is set up, you may want to install plexiglass sneeze guards at certain stations, such as if you have a receptionist who greets visitors.
Setting New Rules for Visitors and Staff
There may be some new rules you need to set forth in the interim, and one may be the limiting of visitors in the workplace. You may have had an office space before that was a constant flurry of clients and vendors, but this is one thing you must change in the wake of the pandemic. Perhaps, in your locality, you don’t need to forbid visitors entirely, but you may have to limit visitors to one in the building at a time. You may want to encourage staff to conduct client contact remotely, if possible. There may also be new guidelines you set for employees who may be potentially sick.
Beyond watching the nightly news, you want to pay close attention to data and transmission rates in your neighborhood and be continually flexible with your reopening plan as things may change. Be sure you’re conducting contact tracing within the workplace as well. If an employee does test positive for the coronavirus, using contact tracing in the workplace will help you alert other employees immediately if they’ve been exposed as well as allow you to institute additional precautions within the office if necessary. Advanced yet affordable AI systems use data collection to automate contact tracing and detect if social distancing measures are not being properly taken, in which case you can step in and remedy the problem.
If an Employee Appears Sick
Perhaps one of the most important aspects of keeping all employees safe is having standards and action plans in place if an employee tests positive or appears sick at work. All of these protocols should be discussed with your employees prior to returning to work so that a worker knows what to expect if they become ill. This applies to “essential workers,” who may be in higher-risk environments as well as those in the office.
Have Known Protocols
You should have a well-drawn out list of sick employee protocols, which is not only emailed to every employee but is posted prominently in the building. The most important protocol of all is to tell employees who feel sick to stay home. This is a good time to remind employees that calling in sick if they don’t feel well won’t count against them. Employees who appear sick at work should be separated immediately from others and sent home. It’s wise to have a transportation plan in place for sick employees, should they become too sick to drive or had taken public transportation into work. You don’t want to put someone with potential COVID-19 infection back on the train.
Check for Symptoms
Some workplaces are opting to provide temperature checks before the start of every shift. In general, self-reporting and temperature checks should be a part of your back-to-work plan. This is because fever is one of the most notable symptoms of having COVID-19. Providing temperature checks with an infrared thermometer is not foolproof, as not all infected with the virus have had a fever, but it can pinpoint employees potentially at risk. Those with temperatures above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit should be immediately discharged home and urged to take a COVID-19 test. Mandatory testing and quarantine for an employee who appears sick must be adhered to.
If an employee tests positive for the virus, it’s commonplace to tell them to quarantine at home — or in a medical facility, if symptoms are severe —- for at least 14 days. It would be wise to request a negative COVID-19 test before the employee can work. Similarly, if you have an employee who has traveled to a state or area that is a COVID-19 hotspot, they should also quarantine for 14 days at home and not report to work. If you have an employee who has a positive test result who has not been in the building for at least a week, the CDC advises that you don’t need to shut down your office or implement additional cleaning practices. Continue with typical cleaning measures. If the employee has recently been in the building, you should shut down operations and clean and disinfect the entire office. The CDC does recommend waiting 24 hours before cleaning an area that an infected person has touched because of the risk of respiratory droplets still being in the vicinity.
Safety is of the utmost importance during this unprecedented time. Renting office furniture and accessories can help cut down on costs while keeping you and your employees safe. CORT Furniture Rental can help. Not only do we offer furniture for rent, but we can help you implement safety strategies with the use of partitions or other office seating arrangements to help keep your workplace a safe one.