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By: Cassee Ger on May 6th, 2020

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What to Review When Planning to Reopen Your Workplace from COVID-19

Risk Management | Business Management & Strategy

How Employers Can Best Approach the Next Steps for Your Workplace

On April 16, 2020, the White House issued Opening Up America Again, federal guidelines to reopen the U.S. economy through a three-phased approach. As other parts of the world start to rebound from COVID-19, there is increasing pressure to reopen regions of the U.S., with many states announcing reopening dates and moving forward with communicated plans.  The approach for reopening the workplace will be employer-specific, subject to compliance with all state and local directives, as well as any industry-specific requirements. While the government and local jurisdictions are developing and rolling out plans to reopen, we recommend leaders consider what direct and indirect implications there may be with returning to the traditional workplace right away. 

The workplace-related decisions that employers make over the next several months will shape their culture and leadership brand for the next several years. 

With so much discussion on how to safely reopen the workplace, Helios encourages leaders to think holistically about the choices they must make relative to their business.  Reopening a state economy and requiring a physical presence in your office are two separate decisions; a state reopening date does not necessitate a return to the physical workspace. Helios HR (Helios) recommends taking the following steps to help determine what is right for your business.

Step 1: Establish a COVID-19 Response Task Force

If not already developed within your business, establish a COVID-19 task force. In addition to supporting employees during this historic time, this task force should be formed with the mission to ensure a thorough and intentional action plan is developed that supports the business from an employee safety, employee experience, operational, and business risk perspective.  Helios recommends this task force include, at a minimum, members of senior leadership and representatives from the following functional areas: human resources, information technology, and office administration or facilities. Ideally, all things related to your COVID-19 response will be led by, or funneled through, this task force.

Step 2: Assess and Evaluate Return to Work Decision

Each employer will have to determine when the “right” time is to return to the physical workplace and that time for your business may be sooner or later than your competitors and peers within your industry, and that is okay. To best evaluate this decision, your COVID-19 task force should gather feedback from the management and staff about how things have been going on a day-to-day basis since the rapid expansion of the virtual workforce.  This collection can be done through both formal and informal methods based on your culture and operating style and will help inform the future actions for the task force and the business.

With the above gathered information in mind, Helios recommends the COVID-19 task force discuss the following factors specific to your business:

What are the benefits to your business of having employees return to the workplace?

In other words, what is not happening in your business that would require you to reopen the workplace?  Is it truly essential for your employees to be in the physical workplace to successfully perform their role? For employees who must return to the office, consider phasing employees back into the office based on roles and business strategic priorities. Phasing can include staggering arrival/departure times and alternative workweeks.

How will reopening the workplace impact your employee morale in the short-run and long-run?

Getting employees back into an office environment and adjusted to a “new normal” will be hard work for any employer. If you do not approach and execute returning to the workplace with your employees top of mind, it can have a devastating impact on employee morale, which in turn can lead to loss of productivity and a decline in your business’ financial health.  When your employees look back six or 12 months from now, will they feel proud of how your leaders responded to this pandemic?

If employees are unhappy with how you navigate your response today, they are likely to leave as soon as they feel comfortable the economy has stabilized, which will present additional talent challenges for your business in the future. 

Do your leaders know how employees feel about coming back to the workplace?

If you cannot confidently answer this question, considering assessing how your employees feel. This can be done via manager/employee check-ins, anonymous survey, or other data collection method that best suits your culture and employees.

Consider why you may benefit from continued work from home practices.

At the start of this pandemic, some employers were experimenting with working remotely, which eventually turned into a forced stay-at-home order.  COVID-19 has exposed more employers to virtual work than ever before.  For leaders that were hesitant about the idea of telecommuting, they are now seeing a virtual environment can work for their business, and at this point, many have grown accustomed to operating remotely.

Aside from the obvious benefits of creating autonomy, no commute, decreased expenses, and for some, fewer distractions, there are other benefits to remote work that will help bolster your business. By adopting remote work policies, you increase your access to a larger pool of talent while helping retain the talent you have now.  Employers can look outside of their normal demographic area and expand their search nationwide.  Do you have a key person who wants to relocate to a different city?  You can keep this employee without having to recruit, hire, and train an entirely new resource.

Who needs office space? At Helios, many of our clients are evaluating office space needs and reviewing their lease to explore potential cost savings for the future. Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom conducted a two-year work-from-home study which found the company saved almost $2,000 per employee on rent by reducing the amount of HQ office space. You can watch Bloom describe the study and the findings in his 2017 TEDx talk.  

Compile a list of “pros and cons” for reopening your workplace based on what you know today.

This exercise will help maintain proper perspective and ensure a holistic approach while developing a well-informed plan. When compiling this list, consider the impact from a business perspective, safety perspective, and employee experience perspective. With each cycle through these recommended steps, your pros and cons list will likely evolve as new information is made available.

Once this information is collected and evaluated within the COVID-19 task force, proceed through the following steps in preparation for reopening your workplace with a focus on the safety of your employees and limiting the risk of further spread and infection.

Step 3: Stay Apprised of Government-Issued Regulations and Guidance

To move forward, employers need to determine which laws, regulations, and safety requirements they must comply with.  There are guidelines provided by the White House, OSHA, and the CDC, in addition to state and local regulations. Employers should consider conducting a risk assessment using the prescribed guidelines and regulations to identify any areas of improvement or corrective action.

Both the CDC and OSHA have published guidelines to assist employers in making decisions regarding reopening the workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic.

CDC

The CDC recently published Reopening Businesses with Workers At Risk For Serious Illness, which is a tool to help employers decide whether or not they are ready to reopen the workplace.  The CDC tool is not an all-encompassing toolkit; however, it does ask employers to consider some important initial questions before even considering reopening the workplace. 

According to the CDC, employers need to ask themselves these three questions when deciding to reopen:

  1. Are you in a community no longer requiring significant mitigation?
  2. Will you be able to limit non-essential employees to those from the local geographic area?
  3. Do you have protective measures for employees at higher risk (e.g. teleworking, tasks that minimize contact)?

If you can answer “yes” to each of the three questions for your business, then you can consider the possibility of reopening your workplace. Recommended safety actions and ongoing monitoring are other key considerations in the CDC tool.

The CDC has also issued guidance on cleaning and disinfecting workspaces. Highlights of their recommended guidance are provided below:

  1. Develop a plan: determine what needs to be cleaned
  2. Implement the plan: clean and disinfect visibly dirty surfaces
  3. Maintain and revise the plan: continue routine cleaning and disinfection

OSHA

At a minimum, OSHA’s The General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970, 29 USC 654(a)(1), requires employers to furnish to each worker “employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”

The challenge for employers is trying to define what exactly the OSH Act means during the COVID-19 pandemic and how to navigate maintaining compliance with OSHA’s COVID-19 standards on limited resources.

On April 16, OSHA released an Enforcement Memo that states “Compliance Safety and Health Officers (CSHOs) should evaluate whether the employer made good faith efforts to comply with applicable OSHA standards and in situations where compliance was not possible, to ensure that employees were not exposed to hazards from tasks, processes, or equipment for which they were not prepared or trained.”

OSHA’s definition of good faith compliance means, “the employer thoroughly explored all options to comply with the applicable standard(s) (e.g., the use of virtual training or remote communication strategies, any interim alternative protections implemented or provided to protect employees, and whether the employer took steps to reschedule the required annual activity as soon as possible.”

Once employers can carefully overcome the safety regulation hurdles, it’s time to take a deep dive into your policies, practices, the make-up of the workforce, and determine if it’s necessary to reopen and if it makes practical sense to reopen the workplace.

Step 4: Plan and Prepare for Your Business Impact

If a determination is made that reopening the physical workplace is the right decision for your business, the next step for employers is to prepare your workplace for workers to return. This preparation includes:

  • deciding who needs to return the workplace;
  • planning for how you will navigate employee challenges;
  • limiting business risk; and
  • keeping employees’ safety top of mind. 

Even if an employer can legally reopen its workplace, the risk for additional legal exposure still exists, as well as a myriad of other potential issues.

Prior to letting employees return to the workplace, there are several questions business leaders should consider as part of their decision-making and implementation process.

Helios has created a Reopening Plan of Action Checklist, which includes many of the items discussed in this article, to help prepare your workplace for employees to return. 

Step 5: Repeat Steps 2 through 5

Employers should assume the impact of COVID-19 on our nation will continue to evolve, along with guidance issued by our federal and state governments. The CDC anticipates another wave of significant impact in the fall of 2020. Your COVID-19 task force should regularly revisit the steps outlined above and adjust your response accordingly, even if that means reversing a decision that was previously made for the overall good of your business and your teams.