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Developing a Return to Onsite Work Strategy

Insights from Dr. Pamela Tume

Issues that businesses will need to consider 

For the past week or so businesses (small and large alike), have begun to develop their plans to have their employees return to their pre-COVID-19 work settings.  The challenge for all these businesses is to come up with policies and procedures to ensure that a safe yet productive and flexible work environment is maintained.

Key issues that people who are tasked with creating such plans are grappling with, include developing  guidelines to ensure that adequate physical distances between employees are followed, that proper preventative equipment and mitigation measures are available, and realistic access controls for employees are practiced.

1. Physical spacing guidelines:

Most existing office set ups are not designed with physical distancing in mind.  The typical cubical work environment has people in close proximity of one another, separated by dividers that stand less than 6 feet tall.  It is clear that cubical workspaces should not be filled to capacity any time soon.  Does this mean that only some employees will be asked to come to your work location at any particular time?  And if so, developing a solution that ensures work proceeds rather than waits for key personal to arrive on sight, that miscommunication does not arise, and key work elements do not fall through the cracks.

Most team meetings take place in a board room setting where people typically sit well within the new recommended physical distancing recommendations. A major challenge is how will group meetings change to maintain safe distances yet still provide inclusive and effective dialogue.

2. Prevention and mitigation of risk:

It will be incumbent that personal protection equipment (PPE) will need to be available to employees so that they feel assured that they are not compromising their safety by being physically present at work.  Ensuring that this equipment is in stock and conveniently located is going to be essential.  Furthermore, staff will need to be trained on, and practice proper use of all this equipment.  Proper PPE use requires people to take the time to make sure that this equipment is being worn properly.  Patience among staff to carry out proper PPE practices, especially in time pressured environments must be something that management strongly communicates.

On a related issue, what happens if an employee who is working onsite takes ill with symptoms consistent with COVID-19?  It is essential that proper contact tracing occurs at the workplace (the process to identify who has had contact with the employee with COVID-19 symptoms).  Having policies in place to decide what actions need to happen with employees who potentially were exposed to the ill individual would need to be put into place.

3. Access control:

For most businesses, they have never been faced with a situation where they have had to limit access to the number of employees on site at one time.  But with the new realities of the COVID-19 business world, this will be a serious issue to prevent over-crowding in the workplace.  The challenge will be to come up with a system that employees will abide by. That safe numbers are always practiced (especially during shift changes). That work coverage and communication is not jeopardized.

The purpose of this piece has been to raise some, but not all of the key issues that businesses will encounter over the coming weeks and months as employees return to their place of work.  Best practices that arise during this time and the sharing of them will be key to help facilitate a sustained economic recovery.