How to safely return to offices after COVID-19
After a few months of remote working due to a coronavirus pandemic, it is time to return to the offices. Companies need to adapt workspaces to safety requirements. How to prepare employees for returning to the offices and ensure their safety?
According to the Eurostat report, remote work has reached its turning point during the COVID-19 outbreak. The rate of people working remotely on the EU labor market was 9% in 2019, but in 2020 it reached almost 40% due to the lockdown. Some of these people are returning to the offices. Before deciding on getting back to work in the offices, companies need to prepare their spaces and develop new regulations. This process requires a lot of work of the HR department, CEOs, and internal teams created to manage pandemic issues.
How to prepare an office for employees' return?
On the EU-OSHA (European Agency for Safety and Health at Work) website, you can find a document with recommendations. It is full of information regarding workspaces organization and ensuring security measures. The similar document can be found on White House's website.
Safety recommendations – how to follow them?
The most important recommendations of the White House include:
- developing and implementing appropriate policies about social distancing – maintaining a 1.5 m (4ft) gap between jobs or separating jobs using separators,
- providing protective equipment, temperature checks, and sanitation – providing face masks, visors, gloves, disinfectant fluids and temperature measuring stations,
- minimize non-essential travels – conducting meetings through videoconferences, canceling delegations and company trips,
- using common and high-traffic areas – limiting the number of people on a given surface, excluding certain rooms from use,
- monitoring workforce for indicative symptoms – not allowing people with disease symptoms to physically return to work until cleared by a medical provider,
- developing and implementing policies and procedures for workforce contact tracing the following employee COVID + test – for example through clock in and out management tools.
The recommendations are quite general in nature, so each company can approach them differently. The first thing to do is to write down everything that should be changed. Companies have to determine how many employees will need to be returned and how many can still be working remotely.
“The management, the HR department, and the Office Manager took care of it in our organization,” says Ms. Helena from the production department. "To prepare for the return to offices more effectively, we used sources of knowledge such as SANEPID (Polish equivalent of CDC), Health and Safety Inspector, webinars, and media. Some employees were happy that it would be possible to slowly return to normal functioning, but a lot of employees would prefer to continue working remotely, e.g. due to commuting by public transport,” she adds.
The next step is to properly plan the spaces: decide where disinfectants and posters about safety should be places. It is a great idea to survey the employees to find out their moods and ideas for improving the rules of working safely in the office.
Creating a survey will also help in preparing a break schedule, determining work changes in the rotary system, and attendance list for specific days. Time attendance and absence management systems will help in preparing work plans and with the help of a time tracker allow to control who and when are in the office. They also allow to keep archived data on the presence of subordinates from the leave planner so that if one of them gets sick, you can quickly check who may be at risk.
“In our case, the rotational work, division of employees into groups, and attendance registration worked well. We used the QR codes available in Calamari Clockin. In addition to scanning the presence/exit, we have added the option of marking "office work" (Calamari allows you to add your own types of absences, their limits and assigning selected employees to them), thanks to which employees can control how many people will be present at a given time,” explains Mrs. Helena.
Preparation of the office space
The first step is to separate workstations at a safe distance of 1.5 m (4ft). You can also separate seats with screens. Conference spaces should be used only if necessary. When preparing the office, remember about personal protective equipment and safety posters reminding about exercise caution.
Personal protective equipment should be placed where people appear most often: at the building entrances, open spaces, production halls, in toilets, kitchens, and conference rooms. They should be also placed near devices people commonly use such as printers or photocopiers. It is also important to remove unnecessary decorations and create a schedule with limitations of the people allowed to be in the kitchen or other shared space at the same time.
What is next?
You have to inform people about the changes in advance so they can properly prepare. You also need to monitor the employees' behavior since returning to the office to ensure that they follow the regulations. In the case of breaking the rules, you need to find out the reason and eliminate it by implementing necessary changes.
The first weeks after returning to the office will certainly not be easy. Employees will have to get used to new standards and different behavior of their colleagues. Sometimes there may be misunderstandings. Here are a few useful ideas to help your subordinates find their way in the new reality.
Organizing a meeting about new regulations where employees can ensure their safety and dispel doubts is a great idea especially for bigger organizations where changes have a large impact on their everyday work-life. It is a good way to provide knowledge on how to react in various situations. It will also give your employees a sense of security that will positively affect their productivity.
Wearing silicone bands in different colors, through which people inform others about their attitude towards the distance is a simple idea to help employees in everyday communication. Red is for people who do not want to make physical contact, yellow for those who avoid touching but are willing to talk, and green bands mean that a person is willing to both talk and make physical contact. Using such a code will avoid awkwardness, for example when shaking hands when greeting.
Another useful solution is to create a Pandemic Idea Box. It can be placed in the office or it can be an online survey. The idea is to create a place where employees can submit their ideas for changes in the office to better maintain safety and improve workflow. Anonymity will increase the chance of getting honest answers.
Employees feel safer when they are informed about their situation, so it is worth developing a thought-on action plan and a effective way of communication about work rules changing. You can prepare a special newsletter about the latest information on security principles, current activities of the company, and changes regarding the virus. Using time-off managers for attendance managing is also a great solution to help your employees be safe and always up to date.
“For us, it was crucial to plan rotational work in the office with proper registration of presence, which in the event of a possible illness by one employee will quickly help to quarantine a group of employees who could be in the circle of people contacting the infected person, and will not require closing the entire office,” says Ms. Helena. “It was also important to equip the office and employees with antibacterial gels, masks, and similar personal protective equipment,” she concludes.
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