It is understandable that employees might be feeling anxious about re-entering the office where once they so freely collaborated and conversed with others. Everyone is in some sense preparing for the “new normal” at the centre of which is a valid fear of the coronavirus. According to a recent study conducted by Forrester, 59% of surveyed employees are afraid of its spread. As company leaders begin to think of returning their staff to an office, it is important that they plan for it in advance, consider the impacts on morale, and make adjustments to minimize any risks of infection.
Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (“OHSA”) requires employers to take all reasonable precautions to ensure the health and safety of its workers. Before moving everyone back into the office, it is prudent to identify and assess risks for COVID19 specific to your company and devise a plan for minimizing those risks. Evaluate which elements of your business require frequent contact between people, what the movement patterns are, and which rooms as well as objects are shared.
This is the time to revisit and adjust organizational policies to include items such as hygiene, work from home guidelines, or reporting of personal travel and illness. As an employer it is also your responsibility to ensure that the office is equipped with enough hand soap and sanitizer, that surfaces are disinfected regularly, and to take immediate and appropriate steps in isolating anyone who presents symptoms of an infectious nature.
Whether yours is an open-concept office or a traditional closed floor plan, consider and understand how the space was being used prior to COVID19. Were people apt to gathering in one particular area? What are the high traffic spots and how closely are employees sitting to one another? Depending on the size of your workforce and office density, explore opportunities for reseating your team to every other desk in any open areas, to leave more distance in between. If that is not possible, partitions or privacy screens are a good solution.
Minimize use of shared objects such as printers or copiers by shifting to a paperless environment. Limit the number of persons in smaller, more contained spaces, such as the kitchen, bathroom, or the boardroom. If you can open windows to let in some fresh air regularly, do so. Place markers on the floor to direct traffic. These are just some ways in which you can make low-cost adaptations to the workplace so returning employees will feel safer.
The Government of Canada recommends that “outside of the health care context, PPE should only be used on the advice of an organization’s occupational health and safety department, based on a risk assessment that considers both the risk associated with a specific task/activity as well as the characteristics of the source of the infection (e.g. a sick person or a contaminated environment).” Some organizations are requiring employees to wear masks and gloves. Others have initiated employee questionnaires to assess for illness. Lean on your health and safety committee to determine what is most appropriate for your company and be sure to consider employee privacy as well as discrimination issues, particularly when implementing any COVID-19 screening practices.
If you don’t have to rush moving everyone back into the office, pacing the return is a smart approach. Start with essential staff who cannot work well remotely and then add a second wave of employees. At first you can also introduce shifts or staggered work times to ensure there are less people in the office at a given time. You have likely invested in technologies and other setups for remote work so continue to make use of this arrangement, encouraging staff to work from home as much as possible.
A lot of anxiety around returning to the office can be dispelled through regular communication with your team. Inform them about the steps you are taking to minimize risk and encourage a culture of feedback. Provide information and updates from government and public health groups. Post instructions for proper hygiene and cleaning of surfaces. Educate your employees about the effectiveness of social distancing and encourage leaders to model distancing behaviours such as stopping handshakes, keeping a gap of at least two meters from each other, and staying home when feeling ill.
As swiftly as we had to acclimatize to remote work, just as quickly we will now have to readjust to a new way of working. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to this. Once again each company will have to find the right balance of business continuity and employee safety measures, and likely keep adapting them in the months to come. The way we interact with one another, from business meetings to team brainstorming sessions, is going to be different, at least for the foreseeable future. Companies that embrace the changes will be that much more resilient.