How Can Employees Return (Safely) to the Office?


Insights for ProfessionalsThe latest thought leadership for Management pros

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Over a year after the COVID-19 pandemic closed a large percentage of offices, there’s optimism in the air as companies worldwide tentatively plan to return.

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How Can Employees Return (Safely) to the Office?

Although the pandemic isn’t over, we now have a better understanding of how the virus operates, and the number of new COVID cases is consistently declining each day. Because of this, many companies are now starting to seriously consider returning to the office and deciding which employees they require and how to bring these people on-site in a safe, controlled, and productive way.

So what must a business consider in order to facilitate a safe return to work?

1. What health and safety requirements are there for your area?

You can’t forget the health and safety aspect of opening your business up. Therefore, you need to take into account any regulations that might be in place in your area. A summary of the current guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) goes as follows:

  • Provide soap, water, paper towels and sanitation stations for workers, customers and visitors to wash their hands when needed. It’s also important to encourage frequent and proper washing (for at least 20 seconds).
  • Identify high-traffic areas and surfaces or items that are shared or frequently touched that could become contaminated. Target them for enhanced cleaning and disinfection using EPA-registered disinfectants.
  • Limit business occupancy to the number of workers/customers that can safely be accommodated to allow for proper social distancing.
  • Define flooring in six-foot zones in crucial areas where workers, customers or visitors would ordinarily congregate (i.e., restrooms, check-out lines, areas with time clocks, break areas) to encourage people to keep appropriate social distance between themselves and others.
  • Post signage around the workspace reminding workers, customers and visitors to maintain at least six feet between one another. Post directional signs in hallways or corridors where the width restricts movement and limits social distancing. 

2. Create a dedicated committee within the business for your return to work strategy

Businesses will need to dedicate time and resources to getting a strong strategy in place for the safe re-opening of their offices. Because of this, it’s a good idea to make sure that this strategy is monitored and amended where necessary. One way to do this is to put together a committee or dedicated team.

This team must continually re-evaluate and discuss the return to office strategy and implement any changes where required. This will ensure that everyone in the office is aware of what steps need to be taken to keep the workplace safe. As part of this, the following factors must be reviewed regularly:

  • Discuss whether employees need additional equipment if they’re due to work from home for an extended period. Providing employees with this equipment will make the transition from leaving the home/office environment more straightforward.
  • Only bring employees back into the office environment if they can’t work effectively at home. Determine the number of employees needed to handle the physical office workload and work towards not exceeding this number wherever possible.
  • Plan the changes that the working environment must take, following the government guidelines. This may take time to implement, so it must be done in advance if possible.

3. Determine whether employees need to go back to the office at all

Many employees will have anxiety regarding returning to work. When determining who goes back, it should be employee-specific - primarily based on personal circumstances and focusing on roles that aren’t suited to working from home.

Coming back first may be those who struggle to operate from home, those having technical problems at home, new employees who need to shadow other colleagues and train, and those who feel socially isolated at home and struggle with mental health.

Vulnerable employees will likely be the last to return (if they do at all), for example, if they have caring responsibilities, if they depend on public transport or are shielding for various reasons. As such, these decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis.

4. Office repopulation needs to be gradual and flexible

You need to operate your business while considering the individual circumstances of your employees (i.e., vulnerable, shielding, caring responsibilities, socially isolated, avoiding public transport if possible or travelling during peak times, etc.).

Ensure there’s two-way communication with employees and keep your team informed regularly and throughout. Encourage staff to support their manager in informing them of their circumstances and raise questions and concerns regarding returning to work. Consider sending out frequent feeler questionnaires to build your responses around.

After all this, office repopulation should be gradual and set out based on who needs to return to the workplace and why.

5. Make changes to the physical workplace

It’s likely that the new office workspace is going to look a little different as employees begin to return. For example, hot-spotting and moving around workstations may no longer be encouraged, and desks are likely to be set slightly further apart than they were before the pandemic. This is to encourage social distancing and health and safety practices.

Businesses can make positive and safe changes to the workplace include introducing smaller meeting rooms, so there are fewer people involved. Another way is to ensure that teams gather in smaller groups to avoid overcrowding and unnecessary interactions, this might be during meetings, in break-out areas or even gathered around their desks.

6. Encourage the use of remote technologies

Finally, remote working technologies have been a life-saver whilst offices have been closed, but there’s no reason why these should be immediately forgotten about as employees return to the office. Instead of arranging face-to-face meetings in larger groups, encourage people to dial in remotely or set up conference calls with multiple attendees.

Encouraging remote communication can reduce the number of people needed in the office. And let’s face it, there are often times when employees are made to meetings that could have just as easily been done through email or over the phone. So it’s vital that employers encourage the use of digital communication where possible.

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