Some employees are returning to the office for the first time since March 2020.
While we had hoped COVID would be in the rearview mirror, the U.S. experienced a surge in cases driven primarily by the Delta variant. As a result, while some companies have delayed their return plans, still others are moving forward. The following are five key considerations for a successful (and healthy) return to the office.
1. Finalize COVID policies, and clearly communicate with employees.
A company’s plan for how to combat COVID-19 when employees resume in-person work will vary depending on a number of factors, including how much virus is spreading in the community and the size of the office. Employers are navigating hot-button issues like mask requirements and vaccine mandates. Once you settle on a policy, the key to a successful return to the office will be good communication.
Communicate all plans to employees in writing. Make sure employees know what to do and who to notify if they are exposed to COVID-19, when they can return to work if they have the virus, and any documentation they may be required to provide. Encourage workers to stay home if they feel sick.
2. Encourage testing and vaccinations.
One case of COVID-19 can become an outbreak before you know it. Make it easy for employees to get tested if there is an exposure by providing paid time off and by partnering with a local urgent care provider that offers customizable COVID-19 testing programs for businesses. Make accommodations for employees who may be at higher risk of severe illness due to COVID-19.
Encourage employees to get vaccinated, not just against COVID-19, but influenza as well. Physicians are already seeing an increase in respiratory illnesses, and that will likely continue into through the fall and winter. Encouraging employees to get vaccinated against both COVID-19 and influenza will not only protect those workers but can help doctors rule out both illnesses.
3. Prioritize mental health.
Workers are under immense stress and their mental health is suffering. A recent study of 1,000 U.S. workers by TELUS International found 75% of workers struggled at work due to anxiety. One in five workers surveyed said they would consider quitting their current job for another that focused more on meeting employee’s mental health. Employers should recognize that employees may be suffering from anxiety, depression or burnout.
Show employees you value their mental well-being by offering therapy or counseling as part of your company’s health benefits and creating a workplace wellness program. Be sure to educate employees of the various resources available to help if they need support.
Be aware that some employees may be returning with new addictions. Stress and isolation have fueled a rise in drug and alcohol abuse. Remind employees of your drug and alcohol abuse policies in return-to-work communications.
4. Make sure required tests are up to date.
Certain industries require annual physical exams, so now is a good time to make sure everything is up to date. Employees working in a position regulated by OSHA Respirator Standard CFR 1910.134 must complete a respirator fit test at least once a year. Also, OSHA requires a fit test before working with a new mask, or after changes in the employee’s facial characteristics. Many times, a respirator fit test is done along with a Pulmonary Function Test (PFT), also known as a Spirometry. Also, note that some workers laid off for more than three weeks may need a pre-employment DOT drug test, the same as new hires.
5. Create a clean and healthy workplace
It is the employer’s responsibility to provide a safe and healthy workplace. Before employees return, employers should conduct a hazard assessment to identify potential hazards that could increase the risk for COVID-19 transmission.
- Identify areas where employees could have close contact with others. Rearrange furniture and install clear barriers to separate employees where social distancing is not possible. Use signs, decals or colored tape on the floor to promote social distancing.
- Train employees on proper hygiene procedures. Post signs in the bathroom and kitchen to encourage proper handwashing. Share tips on how to disinfect shared workspaces and frequently touched surfaces. Provide masks and hand sanitizer and educate employees on proper use of PPE.
- Consider making changes to improve ventilation in the building. Proper air flow is important to limit the spread of COVID-19. Consult an HVAC professional to bring in more outdoor air and increase total airflow in workspaces. Opening windows and doors if possible and safe to do so to create natural ventilation.
Keep in mind that many workers have been out of the office for more than a year, so now is a good time to remind workers of safe work practices. Returning workers may not be accustomed to lifting cases of paper or standing for long periods of time. Bone breaks, stress fractures, joint pain and sore backs may be more common when offices re-open and could lead to workers’ comp claims.
There is no question that a return to the office is complicated. There are a lot of factors for employers to consider before rolling out the welcome mat. Consider partnering with a local urgent care center and consulting an employment attorney for help navigating some of these issues.