The COVID-19 crisis has engulfed almost the entire world in its grip and brought most business activities to a complete standstill. With most cities and countries opting for a gradual uplifting of the lockdowns imposed in their respective territories, organizations and their employees are looking forward to returning to work. However, most of them are anxious about returning to the workplace given that the COVID pandemic has still not subsided in many parts of the world and pose a risk to all office goers. Returning to work is likely to be a scary, awkward, and jarring experience for most people. This presents a major challenge for the HR and management of organizations trying to their businesses back on track.
Key concerns for organizations
Organizations need to be forewarned that getting their workforce to return to work might not be as easy as flipping a light switch. In fact, it might not return to the pre-COVID like normalcy for a long time. It would take the combined efforts of the HR, the management and the employees to gradually get the business operations running smoothly. For most organizations, their HR, Admin and Facilities teams will be leading this effort. They will be playing a critical role in providing the necessary planning, logistics, and technical support required for employees returning to the workplace as well as their remote working employees. The major concern for organizations would be balance business continuity with employee health and safety.
Addressing the issue of employee safety
Organizations fully understand that though businesses have been allowed to resume operations, the threat of COVID-19 has not diminished. Hence they need to proactively implement systems and policies in accordance to the guidelines of the World Health Organizations (WHO), government and industry bodies to ensure employee health and safety for the next several months to come. This is essential to ensure business continuity as well as to minimize the risk of the employees getting exposed to COVD-19 at the workplace. Organizations need to come up with effective policies and standard operating processes to mitigate this risk:
- Rethink employee density at office
The concept of social distancing is going to become the new norm as people return to work. Hence it is extremely essential for organizations to rethink employee density permissible at the workplace to avoid the risk of transmission. They need to consider alternate seating arrangements for the employees attending office and avoid physical meetings and gatherings of employees to ensure safe social distancing. Organizations also need to enable as many employees as possible to continue to work from home to reduce workplace density.
- Clearly define the safety protocols at the workplace
Organizations need to clearly define the safety protocols for social distancing and hygiene at the workplace. These should include measures such as screening, wearing masks, travel to the office, seating at the office, meetings, behaviour in common areas such as pantry and canteen and sanitization of the workplace, common areas and touchpoints. In-person meetings should be discouraged and replaced by virtual meetings. The timings of the canteen should be staggered, and ensure social distancing and hygiene. Social distancing needs to be followed even at the pantry and disposable cups etc. should be used. In addition, organizations should work constantly and visibly generate awareness about the importance of maintaining personal hygiene and safety.
- Implement an effective screening process
The first and the most important step that organizations need to take in the direction of making their workplaces safe for the employees is to have an effective screening process in place. These mandatory screening protocols executed on a daily basis will help in minimizing any chances of employees unwittingly bringing the COVID-19 virus into the workplace. These measures should ideally include thermal screening, voluntary self-declaration, wearing of masks and updating the COVID applications such as the Arogya Setu app. If the security personnel performing the screening feel even slightly doubtful they should be authorized to send back the employees home for the day to mitigate the risk of virus spread. Even visitors and vendors should be screened and asked to wear masks compulsorily.
- Keep the workplace clean and sanitized
Another important aspect to be considered by the organizations is to ensure the constant cleaning and sanitization of the workplace. They should make sure that both the common areas, common touchpoints and individual workstations of employees are disinfected regularly to prevent the spread of the virus. The frequency of cleaning of the entire workplaces should be increased and the cleaning staff should wear personal protective equipment while performing the cleaning.
- Encourage employees to follow hygiene and social distancing protocols
Encouraging employees to follow the hygiene and the safety guidelines are critical for Organizations in the post-COVID scenario. Employees should not come to the office if they are not feeling well and should immediately inform their supervisor/ HR. Voluntary declaration of health status, updating COVID apps (Arogya Setu), ensuring social distancing while at the office, travelling in a cab or bus, wearing masks, avoiding crowding in the office pantry, canteen or common areas, etc. require the cooperation of the employees.
- Update sick leave policy
COVID-19 has necessitated multiple policy changes for organizations and one of the most important among these is the policy related to sick leaves. The HR update the sick leaves policy to cover the current COVID-19 situation. The policy should cover aspects like the number of paid days off that the employees will get in case they are suspected to be positive, test positive or need to care for a positive-tested family member. Organizations may also consider the option of an indefinite remote working for such employees to minimize the disruption of workflow while also minimizing the risk of the spread of disease at the workplace.
Organizations looking at reopening their workplaces for employees in the near future in this current COVID-19 situation need to carefully plan and implement the necessary processes to minimize the health and safety risks to employees while ensuring business continuity.