After months of closures and remote working, businesses are gradually resuming onsite operations.
As companies across the nation cautiously get back to work, they need to strike a delicate balance between their existing processes and what’s necessary to accommodate a new normal. How can organizations remain functional while keeping employees and customers safe and preventing new COVID-19 outbreaks, too? Work environments differ vastly and there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. We reached out to Katherine Cavanaugh, Certified Safety Professional® (CSP®), for her expertise and insights regarding precautions as businesses reopen.
Read on for some important recommendations to consider as your firm charts a new course during and beyond COVID-19.
Keep your company’s culture in mind.
“What’s right for one organization won’t necessarily be right for another,” notes Ms. Cavanaugh. Some settings are highly social and interactive, while others are more independent. Enforcing social distancing protocols may be relatively easy or virtually impossible. Workplace cultural considerations and physical restrictions should guide employers as they develop reopening protocols that make sense for their environment.
Avail yourself of existing reopening tools and information.
While there are many protocols to consider and processes to put in place, Ms. Cavanaugh cautions that employers shouldn’t reinvent the wheel. “A number of government agencies, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), have published comprehensive guidelines to help businesses reopen safely,” she says. “Use this expertise and tailor it to your organization’s needs rather than trying to develop it yourself.”
Perform a detailed review of your space with ventilation experts.
Well before you reopen, Ms. Cavanaugh recommends having detailed conversations with building engineers and facility management personnel. Health experts have placed additional emphasis on proper ventilation to mitigate exposure to the COVID-19 virus, so understanding what that means for your facility is essential. Has the ventilation system been upgraded? Is a HEPA filtration system now in place? What other safeguards have been added? The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) provides detailed recommendations for reopening commercial buildings on its COVID-19 Resources webpage.
Provide comprehensive training and reinforcement.
Explain in detail the precautions that have been taken to protect your employees, visitors, and customers. Provide workers with a thorough checklist of COVID-19 symptoms, its transmission, the proper use of personal protective equipment, cleaning and disinfecting procedures, etc. Make sure everyone understands proper hand washing protocols and respiratory etiquette. Use signage, floor decals, and ongoing training to further emphasize the message and reinforce these procedures.
Encourage unwell staff members to stay home.
To mitigate the risk of an outbreak, it’s critical that employees understand that they should not report to work if they’re sick or if they may have been exposed to the coronavirus. “Many organizations perform daily temperature checks upon entry. Some also require a negative COVID-19 test before returning to work,” says Ms. Cavanaugh. “Management should develop rigorous health and welfare protocols so they don’t run the risk of infected employees transmitting the illness to their coworkers.”
Devise proper mask-wearing protocols.
Depending upon your work environment, face coverings may or may not need to be worn continuously. If staff members have private offices and little interaction, for instance, it might be acceptable for them to remove their masks while working independently. Conversely, employees who have frequent contact with others, such as receptionists and transportation drivers, should wear face coverings at all times. N95 masks offer the most protection, but because they are in short supply and are necessary for health care workers, robust alternatives can be adequately protective. Ms. Cavanaugh suggests that personnel in high-contact positions wear a standard cloth mask along with a plastic face shield for added protection.
Step up hygiene efforts.
Keep workplace surfaces (e.g. desks and tables) and objects (e.g. telephones and keyboards) clean by wiping them regularly with a disinfectant. Encourage frequent handwashing as a new part of your work culture and make sure everyone knows proper respiratory etiquette, including covering coughs and sneezes with disposable tissues. Many firms have installed handwashing stations in high-traffic areas and have also placed hand sanitizer dispensers throughout their facilities to support hygienic efforts.
Pay particular attention to common spaces.
Businesses should take measures to eliminate or at least minimize gatherings in common areas, such as lobbies, conference rooms, and cafeterias. At the Pentagon, strategy meetings regularly attended by 40 to 50 people now take place in three rooms with videoconferencing in each. This arrangement allows individuals to address all attendees and collaborate in small groups rather than crowding together in one conference area. Some firms have added dividers to their cafeteria tables, while others are staggering lunch breaks. Many corporate offices have installed motion-activated doors and removed shared appliances from office kitchens and pantries. “Give extra thought to the common places and high-touch devices in your facility,” recommends Ms. Cavanaugh. “Do people share the coffee maker or microwave? What will be the process for cleaning? Should employees bring their own condiments or will you offer disposable packets? These are just a few of the many considerations for common areas.”
Recognize that your employees will have concerns.
Reopening is nerve-wracking for everyone, including your staff members. Having honest, open dialog and facilitating two-way communication will be critical to mastering your safe reopening. Ms. Cavanaugh suggests that companies:
- Be transparent about how you plan to have the office premises cleaned and disinfected to help allay fears
- Provide staff members with adequate supplies, such as masks, hand sanitizer, and disinfecting wipes
- Conduct regular check-ins to assess employee comfort level and adherence to the safety protocols
- Demonstrate flexibility to accommodate a variety of individual needs and rapidly-changing scenarios
- Create rotational schedules to de-densify the workplace
Construct a unifying message.
“Wearing masks, staying physically apart from others, following all of these new procedures…it can feel daunting,” Ms. Cavanaugh says. “This is the time to remind your staff that ‘we’re all in this together’. I’ve been amazed by the adaptability and resiliency I’ve witnessed. Use your reopening plan messaging to encourage harmony and positivity.”
Is your organization planning to reopen its doors soon? The HR Team is here to offer access to valuable insights that can facilitate your efforts and protect the health of your workers. Please contact our knowledgeable professionals to learn more.
About The HR Team: Founded in 1996, The HR Team is a Maryland-based human resources outsourcing firm committed to developing strategic, customized solutions that respond to the unique needs and cultures of organizations of all types and sizes. Available as a one-source alternative to an in-house HR department or on an à la carte project basis, the company’s flexible service models address the full spectrum of HR needs that many organizations struggle to address. The HR Team helps clients achieve their highest level of success by providing value-driven human resources services that leave them time to focus on what they do best: directing business growth and profitability. Headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, the firm serves all of Maryland, Washington, DC, and Virginia. To learn more about The HR Team, call 410.381.9700 or visit https://www.thehrteam.com/.