As states loosen stay-at-home restrictions, many businesses are grappling with how to deal with the myriad issues that arise in connection with bringing employees back into the workplace. These decisions are complicated by the fact that COVID-19 hasn’t gone away and looks likely to stick around for the foreseeable future.
In this article we’ll discuss the various considerations that should be part of your return-to-work planning. If you haven’t already done so, you should check out our COVID-19 Back to Business Planning Tool, which goes into greater depth on most of the things discussed in this article, provides helpful checklists, and contains template documents along with other resources.
The easy answer is to say all employers need to care until the point at which the country has either achieved herd immunity, or an effective vaccine has been administered to a sufficient percentage of the population.
However, I want to call special attention to office spaces, since all employers have some form of office space, no matter what their primary business may be. Ironically, even though many reopening safety protocols are developed during meetings in office spaces by people who regularly work in those spaces, many of our clients treat office safety as an afterthought, and don’t practice the very things they preach to the rest of the organization.
Therefore, it’s important to make sure that your planning not only encompasses your office environments, but that you also take visible steps to comply, since employees in other parts of the organization will notice if the decision makers don’t follow their own advice.
Surprisingly little (at least at the federal level). Despite the existence of a large body of reopening and safety guidance created by federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), the majority of employers are not “required” to adopt any specific workplace practices or protocols (although a number of states and municipalities have imposed specific reopening requirements on employers, such as adopting a formal preparedness plan). Instead, most of the guidance comes in the form of suggestions, recommendations, and the identification of “best practices.”
That’s both a blessing and a curse; while it gives you latitude to determine what will work best for your specific environment, it also means that you have to actually make those determinations, which can be a lot more difficult than simply following explicit mandates.
Start by remembering that what you do by way of safety practices impacts not just your employees, but also anyone they live with who might be high-risk, along with your customers, clients, vendors, or anyone with whom your employees may come into contact while working.
It’s also worth recognizing that your employees have an expectation (one that’s reinforced by OSHA) that the workspace you provide them will be safe for the work they are performing. Failing to take reasonable precautions can lead to negative social media campaigns, OSHA inspections, work comp claims, and even lawsuits.
The best place to start is by actually reviewing any official federal guidance that applies to your industry, along with any state or city-specific resources that might cover any of your locations (these can often be found on the websites for your state’s departments of labor and/or health). From a federal perspective, the following resources should apply to most employers:
While there are a number of things you should be thinking about, they can be loosely organized into the following categories:
Let’s go through each of these in order.
Developing a workplace-specific safety plan
Dealing with employee-specific issues related to returning to work
Responding to COVID concerns in the workplace
There are a lot of moving parts to reopening during a pandemic. A great place to start the process is by consulting our COVID-19 Back to Business Planning Tool. And, if are a member of the Hotline, you can always contact us to discuss the thorny details of whatever situations you might be facing.
James provides guidance to employers on a variety of topics with a focus on employment, risk management and liability issues.
James provides guidance to employers on a variety of topics with a focus on employment, risk management and liability issues. In addition to working directly with employers, he regularly conducts in-depth training through webinars, at client sites, and through the University of Minnesota’s Continuing Ed program. He previously was a plaintiff’s attorney and brings that perspective into his advice to employers. James received his law degree from the University of Minnesota and his BA from Washington University in St. Louis.
A recent survey by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) reported 94% of leaders feel employee engagement is an important or very important workforce challenge. An engaged workforce increases operational income by over 19%, while a disengaged workforce can drain over 34% of an organizations’ operational income. Additional risks of low engagement can be seen in increased turnover, low customer satisfaction ratings and even increased employment litigation.
If you could give human form to your safety culture, what would it look like?
Maybe it would be a thick-set, shirtless brute named Trog with a foul disposition beating out a drum cadence to keep your employees rowing in-sync.
Or would it be more like a fussy and constantly disapproving Dickensian paper-pusher named Fizzlewhite who has never met a rule or procedure he didn’t like, even though he hasn’t done most of the things he creates rules to address?
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