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Navigating Your Teams Return To Office

If your company is contemplating this transition, there are some big questions your team may be asking, including “How do I make sure our office is ready for a safe return?” and “What should our new policies and procedures be?” The post-covid workplace is facing many changes and you may be finding that navigating those changes is confusing and overwhelming. This detailed guide will help you create a safe return-to-office plan that will promote a healthy and productive workplace for your team.

Planning the return to office

Planning your team’s return to the office will require a more detailed approach than your standard workplace safety plan. It is important to start by familiarizing yourself with any current guidelines and government mandates that have been put in place to ensure the safety of employees. And while local regulations may differ, there are recommendations that apply to businesses nationwide. Both the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have recommended additional preventative measures in order to protect against the spread of a serious illness throughout the workplace. Under the OSH Act, employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthy workplace, free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm. This makes it very important to discuss the following recommendations within your management team and start on a plan of action.

Consider a face mask policy

The CDC strongly recommends that unvaccinated people, age 2 and above, wear a mask in indoor public settings. This recommendation also applies to those who are immunocompromised, or in any area with substantial or high transmission. OSHA recommends that you provide face masks for employees free of cost and mandates that you allow any concerned employee to wear a mask, regardless of if they have been fully vaccinated.

Encourage social distancing

To limit the chance of spreading illness between employees, the CDC recommends implementing social distancing standards for the office. Be sure to clearly communicate these new standards to team members and consider displaying signage that serves as a helpful reminder. These expectations could include things like:
  • Keeping a social distance of 6 feet when possible, including when in confined spaces like bathrooms, supply closets, or copy rooms.
  • Using virtual meetings when possible and holding any in-person meetings in rooms that allow for adequate social distancing
  • Recommending packed lunches and/or eating at a desk or outdoors, in order to avoid crowded restaurants, cafeterias, or break rooms

Adopt a hybrid work schedule

The term “Hybrid Workplace” is becoming a popular buzzword for many companies planning their team’s transition back into the office. This workplace model typically consists of more flexibility surrounding in-office schedules, allowing employees to divide their work time between the office and a remote location. Benefits of this model may include:

Increased productivity

While seemingly counterintuitive, some studies show that employees may be more productive when they have the option to work from home. Many workers state that being able to have the option of remote or in-office helps manage their stress, which in turn helps increase their creativity, focus, and motivation.

Easier social distancing

As your team dives into return-to-office planning, you may be wondering how to keep employees socially distanced when space is limited. Hybrid work schedules are perfect for solving this headache, allowing you to stagger in-office schedules. This not only makes it easier to reduce office congestion, but it can also help ease health and safety concerns among employees.

Cost savings

The cost savings associated with integrating a hybrid work environment are considerable. Employees reduce their spending on meals, gasoline, and other expenses while businesses can save money on operational costs, including a reduced real estate footprint. However, because there is no one-size-fits-all hybrid solution, developing your company’s unique approach will take careful thought and planning. We recommend talking with managers and surveying employees to help understand any related challenges your team may face.

Improve Ventilation

We know that the COVID-19 virus spreads more quickly among people indoors than outdoors. Consequently, improving ventilation is a crucial step that may be an effective part of a layered approach to lower viral particles in the air, decreasing the risk of viral transmission to unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers in particular. Key measures may include:
  • Ensuring all heating & cooling systems are operating in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions
  • Conducting regularly scheduled inspections and maintenance procedures
  • Installing air filters with a minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) of 13 or high, when possible
  • Maximizing natural ventilation in buildings without HVAC systems by opening windows or doors, when conditions allow
  • Considering the use of portable air cleaners with HEPA filters in spaces with high occupancy or limited ventilation

Address employee concerns

Many employees are experiencing severe return-to-office anxiety. After an abrupt and somewhat disorienting transition to remote work, team members were bombarded with an incredible amount of anxiety-inducing information that has only recently seemed to slow down. Be sure to communicate your plans for promoting a safe and healthy work environment to all team members before requiring them to come back into the office. It is also important that your employees feel comfortable bringing any concerns to your attention, without fear of consequences. Keep in mind that, according to Section 11(c) of the OSH Act, employers are not permitted to discharge or otherwise discriminate against an employee for participating in workplace safety and health activities. This includes discrimination against employees who raise reasonable concerns about infection control related to COVID-19, no matter where or with whom they discuss the matter, including managers, other employees, government agencies, social media, etc.

Monitor office health risks

Even in the case of a fully vaccinated office, the risk of COVID-19, though greatly reduced, is still possible. Keeping that in mind, it is important your team members are aware of the possible signs and symptoms. If an employee is experiencing symptoms or has been in contact with anyone who has tested positive, they should stay home and consult with their primary care physician. To help support this rule, businesses should eliminate or revise punitive policies that encourage workers to come to work sick, in fear of consequences for their absence. In the event of workplace exposure, employers are encouraged to work with health departments. Quick and effective actions, such as case investigation and contact tracing, may help prevent further spread. According to mandatory OSHA rules in 29 CFR part 1904, you are also required to report work-related cases of COVID-19 illness, if certain criteria have been met.

“To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.

Leonard Bernstein

Creating your return to office plan

Creating a plan for your team’s return to the office can seem daunting, especially when new recommendations and data seem to be released every few weeks. However, these challenges make it all the more important to get started as soon as possible, giving your team ample time to research solutions and gather employee feedback. The goal of planning a return to office strategy should focus on promoting safety, reducing stress & anxiety associated with the transition, and allowing employees to perform their best work even after covid. Remember that each company will have different concerns, so make sure to factor in things like work culture, number of employees, geographic location of both offices & employees, liability risks, etc. Items to cover may include all concerns and recommendations previously discussed, including:
  • A timeline and/or outline of the planned reopening phases
  • Company policies regarding face masks
  • Information concerning vaccine mandates and/or testing protocols
  • Social distancing standards and any scheduling changes that may make these standards easier to follow
  • Improved ventilation & updated cleaning procedures
  • Protocols for monitoring and reporting COVID-19 outbreaks
  • Updated absence and PTO policies to encourage employees to stay home in the event of symptoms or exposure
  • Clear communication encouraging concerned employees to feel comfortable reaching out to management
The last thing to keep in mind is that things may change. Plan on staying as flexible as possible and be sure to stay informed regarding any new guidance from federal, state, local, tribal, and/or territorial health agencies.