On the Road Again . . . Returning to Your Workplace

October 14, 2020

If you’ve been working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, you may look forward to rejoining your colleagues in the offices deserted by your company earlier this year when you started working from home. According to a survey conducted by The Conference Board, about 35 percent of U.S. companies don’t know when they will allow employees back into the office. The survey also concluded that about 39 percent of companies plan to reopen offices by early 2021, while 13 percent of offices have remained open throughout the pandemic.

While decisions to reopen are being made by individual companies that see benefits of staff working collaboratively and creatively in person that many workers miss, and worry that continued lockdowns could damage the economy and society, the return to the office isn’t without risk when the number of coronavirus cases continues to climb.

Returning to the office will be a big change for millions of employees who have gotten used to working from home without long commutes and a daily separation from family during strictly structured work hours. Companies need to prepare for reopening offices even if they don’t plan to call workers back until 2021. Every organization is going to be different in the response needed to get offices back open, depending upon who owns the building, office size, and whether employees are likely to use public transportation.

Office building employers, owners and managers, and operations specialists may find useful guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to prepare for the time when employees return to work by creating a safe and healthy workplace for workers and clients. The following list is an abbreviated version of the CDC’s recommendations to protect your staff and others while slowing the spread of COVID-19.

Check the building to see if it’s ready for occupancy.

  • Evaluate the building and its mechanical and life safety systems to determine if the building is ready for occupancy.
  • Ensure that ventilation systems in your facility operate properly.
  • Increase circulation of outdoor air by opening windows and doors if possible, and using fans.
  • To minimize the risk of waterborne diseases, take steps to ensure that all water systems and features and water-using devices are safe to use after a prolonged facility shutdown.

Identify how workers might be exposed to COVID-19 at work.

  • Conduct a thorough hazard assessment of the workplace to identify potential workplace hazards that could increase risks for COVID-19 transmission.
  • Identify work and common areas where employees could have close contact (within 6 feet) with others—for example, meeting rooms, break rooms, the cafeteria, locker rooms, check-in areas, waiting areas, and routes of entry and exit.
  • Include all employees in communication plans—for example, management staff, utility employees, relief employees, and janitorial and maintenance staff.
  • If contractors are employed in the workplace, develop plans to communicate with contracting companies about changes to work processes and requirements for the contractors to prevent transmission of COVID-19 in your facility.

Develop hazard controls to reduce transmission among workers.

  • Modify or adjust seats, furniture, and workstations to maintain social distancing of 6 feet between employees.
  • Install transparent shields or other physical barriers to separate employees and visitors where social distancing is not an option.
  • Arrange chairs in reception or other communal seating areas by turning, draping, spacing, or removing chairs to maintain social distancing.
  • Use methods to physically separate employees in all areas of the building, including work areas and other areas such as meeting rooms, break rooms, parking lots, entrance and exit areas, and locker rooms.
  • Replace high-touch communal items, such as coffee pots and bulk snacks, with alternatives such as pre-packaged, single-serving items. Encourage staff to bring their own water to minimize use and touching of water fountains or consider installing no-touch activation water fountains.
  • Consider taking steps to improve ventilation in the building, in consultation with an HVAC professional, based on local environmental conditions and ongoing community transmission in the area.
  • Ensure exhaust fans in restroom facilities are functional and operating at full capacity when the building is occupied.

Change the way people work.

Employees who have symptoms of COVID-19 or who have a sick family member at home with COVID-19, should be encouraged to notify their supervisor, stay home, and follow CDC-recommended steps. Employees should not return to work until they meet the criteria to discontinue home isolation, in consultation with their healthcare provider. At the office, the employer needs to:

  • Perform enhanced cleaning and disinfection after anyone suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19 has been in the workplace.
  • Consider conducting daily in-person or virtual health checks of employees before they enter the work site.
  • Stagger shifts, start times, and break times to reduce the number of employees in common areas such as screening areas, break rooms, and locker rooms.
  • Follow the CDC’s guidance for cleaning and disinfecting to develop, follow, and maintain a plan to perform regular cleanings of surfaces.
  • Give employees enough time to wash their hands and access to soap, clean water, and paper towels.
  • Discourage handshaking, hugs, and fist bumps.
  • Encourage the use of outdoor seating areas and social distancing for any small-group activities such as lunches, breaks, and meetings.
  • Use no-touch trash cans.
  • Remind employees and clients to wear cloth face coverings in public settings and avoid touching their eyes, noses, and mouths.

The magazine Financial Management encourages employers to find a balance when planning to reopen the office and offers some key considerations, including the following ones, to keep in mind when considering reopening the office.

Allow choices and review policies. 

Employers must be aware that some employees or someone they live with will have health conditions which make them particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, meaning a return to the office remains unlikely for many months.

Organizations also may find that some employees have discovered that they enjoy working from home and don’t want to come back into the office. The optimal situation is likely to be to give employees the choice of coming into the office or continuing to work from home. Coaxing any staff working from home to return to the office may prove a challenge, but for high-risk employees, those with vulnerable family members, or ones with children doing remote learning, going back to the workplace simply is not an option at present.

Support employees who work at home.

Companies need to ensure that staff have the right technology and resources to continue working from home. More firms are now more likely to consider flexible working requests than before the pandemic struck.

Policies covering sick leave, health benefits, and paid time off also will need to be reviewed so that they adequately protect staff who contract COVID-19 or are required to self-isolate.

Plan for possible outbreaks.

Companies already have plans in place to evacuate offices in case of fires, earthquakes, or other disasters but now they need to add health emergencies to the list. If an employee develops COVID-19 symptoms in the workplace, know how to get them safely out of the building. Companies may need to close a floor or an entire building, before deep-cleaning it, track and trace all staff in contact with the employee, and cover the costs for COVID-19 tests and resulting treatment if an employee tests positive.

With so many changes envisioned for your return to work, at InsureYouKnow.org, you can keep track of modifications in company policies for your health care coverage and paid time off, technology purchases for which you may be reimbursed by your company, and records of COVID-19 testing that may be requested by your employer or when you travel.

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