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COVID-19 Reopening Guide for Businesses

As many companies consider plans to open their offices again, they are facing challenges to ensure the move is done feasibly. From employee reluctance to let go of remote work to concerns over workplace safety, employers have their work cut out for them.

True: it’s not possible to change the undeniable percentage of employees that prefer remote work arrangements outright, and leadership would do well to take this very real workplace culture shift seriously. Still, there are some things organizations intent on resuming in-office work arrangements can do to make the transition easier for all involved and, hopefully, reduce the resulting turnover rates. 

For employers undertaking return-to-work programs, below are a few tips to consider.

1. Communication

Employees have varied, legitimate concerns regarding returning to conventional work. From at-risk family members to childcare needs, companies do well to take employee needs seriously and do what they can to accommodate them.

Before anything else, take time to understand your employees’ individual experiences in regards to remote versus in-office work. Uncover recurrent themes: employee frustrations, preferences, and needs. A plan that actively solves real problems for employees has a much higher chance of reducing turnover.

  • Conduct employee research –  User experience research methods are powerful tools for determining problems – and their solutions. If leaders replace “user” with “employee” they will find much of UX research wisdom applies to the workplace, too. Some of the most powerful tools to get to the point quickly are well-designed surveys, powerful interviews, and personas. Don’t underestimate these tools – they will transform your communication into hard-hitting research.

Once your plan is in effect, you’ll need to keep the communication going. Ensure you have the planning and tools to effectively:

  • Set clear expectations – If your return-to-work plan addresses common employee concerns, be sure to announce the news! Also, ensure all requirements are clear and acknowledged. This may entail having employees complete paperwork, from policy agreements to health screening surveys. This process can be streamlined using a compliant tool like OnTask – which conveniently also allows digital signatures.
  • Send written communications regarding company announcements and any new information, especially involving workplace safety. Ensure everyone knows where they are found and that they are, in fact, seeing and understanding them. To do this, be consistent about where and how announcements are made and regularly seek feedback.

Finally, it may be useful to have a dedicated team of employees tasked with liaising between their colleagues and the company during the change. They can serve as an advocate for employee concerns and assist with research phases of the reopening plan.

2. Preparing the office

A second step is to ensure the office space is prepared to receive returning employees. Check that you have at least planned for the following:

  • Social distance-friendly spaces – Most traditional office environments are unfriendly to social distancing and need redesigned layouts. Without careful planning, your office space could well prevent compliance with social distancing policies and become an unsafe place to work. Build social distancing into the layout of every space in the building. Think especially about desks, break rooms, and meeting rooms – places people tend to congregate in close proximity. 
  • Maximum building occupancy requirements – A well-designed office space likely also limits the number of people that can be in the building at once. This is good news – so back this up with an explicit policy. Limiting building occupancy does not guarantee social distancing, but it does make it possible. 

Allowing too many people in the office can make it hard or impossible to stay 6 feet apart at all times, violating OSHA guidelines. Determine the building capacity limit using a tool like this one, and also make sure your local government doesn’t have specific laws.

  • Office schedule adjustments – A safe environment is multi-pronged. The third support for pandemic-friendly workspaces is to plan in-office work schedules that make it easy to comply with maximum occupancy and spacing requirements. “Return to work” does not mean returning to the way things were before COVID. Instead, most likely reopening the office means creating a hybrid schedule in which people are only in the office some of the time. This supports occupancy limits, enhancing safety. 

Aside from safety, hybrid schedules may have the added benefit of sweetening the deal for employees who truly enjoy the flexibility of remote work. One common solution is a staggered or A/B schedule, but cohort-based and even custom schedules should also be on the table as options.

  • Enhanced cleaning protocols – The reality is that cleaning and disinfecting is the least effective way to prevent COVID-19, which spreads mainly from personal contact. In fact, there are even health risks associated with the heavy use of many common disinfectant methods, from bleaching surfaces to fogging entire buildings. So approach with caution, opting for conservative measures and ensuring all areas subjected to cleaning are well-ventilated. Consider using these protocols for disinfection after a confirmed case of COVID in the facility.

3. Keeping employees safe

Finally, ensure the people entering the building are themselves safe. Here are a few ideas to consider implementing in order to ensure the safest possible work environment for all.

  • Remind building occupants of safety measures – Employees should already be aware of basic requirements to enter the building before they get there. But also ensure there are ample reminders on-site. Have notices at entrances reminding employees of basic requirements (mask-wearing and any other policies). And put clear guides and reminders throughout the building.
  • Remain aware of employee vaccination status – Although it is not the only tool against COVID, vaccinated populations do have significantly lower rates of transmission and serious infection (even for the Delta variant.) Thus, they are generally in lower-risk groups, especially among one another. 

Knowing employee vaccination status could allow you to make decisions regarding who may enter the building and, if necessary, implement additional security measures for the unvaccinated, such as weekly testing. And keep in mind, if your business has more than 100 employees tracking and reporting on vaccination status is required by OSHA’s emergency temporary standard.

  • Contact trace – There is good evidence to show that thorough contact-tracing methods can significantly reduce COVID transmission rates (while poor methods reduce its effectiveness.) Combine a well-researched, competent contact tracing program with other multi-pronged safety measures to properly control the spread of COVID inside your office – and avoid being a source of an infection spike in the surrounding community.
  • Hold physical training to teach proper mask-wearing and precautions – Vaccination does not eliminate the need to wear masks, social distance, or wash hands often in a public setting. Many people incorrectly wear masks, giving a false sense of security. Consider requiring training for those returning to the office, to ensure everyone learns and practices proper mask-wearing, hygiene, and social distancing. 

Keeping the transition as simple as possible

Attempting to shift your workforce back to in-office work is certainly a hurdle. Companies working toward this goal face safety and logistical concerns, not to mention the possibility of losing employees for whom remote work has become a non-negotiable. Still, with careful and thoughtful research and planning, you can help your company experience the best transition possible and reduce turnover. 

Using a tool like OnTask can help to further smooth the process by streamlining things like vaccine tracking, contact tracing, health screenings, test result collection, and to-do items; all while remaining totally secure and compliant.

Interested in learning more? Contact us to schedule a demo!