Return to Work Amid a Global Pandemic: Considerations and Challenges

Safely returning to the workplace is an ongoing challenge that is likely to preoccupy employers for as long as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact their employees, the economy, the communities they operate in and the way they conduct business.

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April 29, 2020

Experts agree that the novel coronavirus will likely impact the way we live and work for a long time. The safe continuation of essential services and return to workplace is a key strategic challenge that employers continue to address and adapt to. Return to Workplace (RTW) and reopening is typically a gradual process, adjusted to local needs and designed to create a safe environment and to minimize the risk of infection spread within the workplace.

We are still learning, among other things, how the virus is transmitted and the immunity post-exposure. Testing and contact tracing are not consistently available in all geographies and may not be as effective in the areas of widespread presence in the community. Developing procedures to address safety in the workplace in the context of high rate of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic spread, and in the environment where availability of rapid testing resources continues to be a challenge, has been a key focus of employers since the beginning of the pandemic.

Companies have created cross-functional task force teams as they develop their plans and establish new processes. As employers navigate the challenges of how and when to bring the employees back to the workplace and keep their operations going amid the risks posed by the global pandemic, Business Group on Health introduced the “Return-to-Workplace Employer Guide” .The guide, as well as other resources related to COVID-19, has been informed by a RTW Working Group assembled by the Business Group, which includes several of the most progressive global employers, health industry partners, testing companies and researchers.

This executive summary provides highlights of the recommendations and considerations that are detailed in the Employer Guide.

Define Scope of Return to Workplace and Continuously Adjust Who Returns and When

The phrase “return to work” can be misleading, whereas “return to workplace” (RTW) is more accurate terminology. For many employees and companies providing essential services, work has continued uninterrupted. In some industries, such as first responders, grocery, food manufacturing, that meant a continuation of in person essential services with necessary safety adjustments. In other industries, work continued through teleworking. Employers in certain other industries, such as hospitality, retail and manufacturing, were able to accommodate a portion of their workforce working from home, with other roles less suited to teleworking, being more severely impacted. Ability to return to the workplace will also vary by location, as companies follow local guidelines at the state and country level, often based on prevalence of disease clusters. For production sites, a return to operations is also dependent on the readiness of their supply chain and ability to procure necessary protective equipment.

Who Returns First in a Phased Approach?

In a phased approach, many companies identify essential employees, as well as those who have been unable to work from home or unable to work at full productivity. These are often the focus of most RTW discussions and implementations. Other employees, who can fulfill their job duties remotely, may continue to work from home perhaps for a prolonged period of time

Visitors and Customers Need Attention as Well

In addition to employees, many companies are also restricting visitor access to those deemed essential. Some companies in China require cars and trucks to drive over an antiseptic mat to disinfect the wheels or potentially undergo a disinfectant spray upon arrival. For companies that regularly welcome customers on-site, like hospitality, movie theaters and sports venues, an additional significant challenge is the risk of exposure to customers.

Set Expectations: This is Not a Return to Normal

While the best set of protocols cannot prevent asymptomatic individuals from entering the workplace, there is a lot that can be done to improve the safety of the work environment, including implementing social distancing, promoting hygiene, allowing work from home where possible and quickly identifying and isolating symptomatic individuals requiring further evaluation.

Return to workplace does not mean return to pre-global pandemic habits. Things will be different in the modified workplace and safety requires a new set of expectations. Frequent, consistent, transparent communications to employees is as imperative during and after return to workplace. Employees should be clear about the measures the company is taking and the new processes and procedures in place.

Expect Change and Some Restrictions to Be Reinstated After Being Relaxed

Employers should prepare for the possibility of a “boomerang,” or spike in cases upon return to workplace that may require the implementation of restrictions again. Countries that were hit the hardest early and were considered to have the virus well-contained have had to return to some stricter social distancing measures after having employees return to working on site. For example, China, which has recently reported about 100 new infections per day, recently closed all the country’s movie theaters again, and Singapore has closed all schools and nonessential workplaces following a resurgence in cases. Be prepared to update your plan with lessons learned and best practices and be ready with improvements you would make if a mass work-from-home/stay-at-home restriction is required again.

Implement Physical Distancing in the Workplace

Companies are considering several options for keeping employees far enough apart to minimize virus transmission.  It is important to be vigilant with these protocols and understand local requirements.  In Singapore, some companies were shuttered when authorities determined they had not implemented the proper physical distancing measures required for returned employees.  For this reason, it is important for companies to take a methodical approach to planning how distancing can best be achieved.

Some tactics include:

  • Only having a predetermined cohort of employees in the office.
  • Having employees in the office in shifts on alternating days.
  • Placing workstations at least 6 feet apart.
  • Installing protective barriers and adjusting production lines to provide more space between workers.
  • Touchless elevators; and
  • Frequent hand sanitizer stations.

Meetings

One company has prohibited any face- to- face meetings of more than five people. Smaller meetings could only be conducted in well-ventilated conference rooms, with mandatory handwashing prior to arrival.

Open Floor Plans

The trend in office space recently has been open design and shared workspaces. That workplace design makes virus containment more challenging, with many workers not comfortable sharing a space that has been occupied by another worker the day before. By keeping teleworking in place wherever possible, employers can temporarily allow shared workspaces to be repurposed so that those who are returning on-site can use a dedicated workstation each day.

Gyms, Cafeterias, and Other Gathering Locations

Consider closing common areas such as cafeterias or gyms. Where common areas cannot be closed, employers can ensure that only a certain number of people are allowed in at a time or that barriers be installed to help ensure that they stay an appropriate distance apart.

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Providing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

While some employees may be required to use medical grade PPE to safely perform their job, for the vast majority of employees non-medical PPE is recommended to preserve medical grade PPE for those who need it. The amount of non-medical PPE required for employees returning to work cannot be underestimated. With many locations having legally mandated that individuals wear masks in public or enclosed areas, many employees may be required to wear one when returning to the worksite. In addition, if screenings such as temperature checks are to occur on-site, those administering those screenings need to have extensive PPE, such as faceguards or full body coverings. One company said that it provides PPE for employees who do not have shields, who work on assembly lines or have jobs that require two people to work in close proximity. Some companies are providing cloth face coverings that employees need to launder and bring back each day. Some companies have also had their workers begin to produce masks to deal with the limited supply.

Be Clear with Employees About Expectations for PPE on the Job

Guidance about mask usage has varied over time, and as it has evolved, so have government policies. The Singaporean government has made it mandatory for all persons (including essential employees at the workplace) to wear a mask when leaving their home, while still encouraging people to stay home as much as possible. In China, masks are also required when riding the company transportation shuttle; in fact, a well-controlled worksite that may not require employees to use PPE on the job may still require them to wear PPE to and from work (see more below on employee anxiety about RTW). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States recently recommended that the American public wear cloth masks when around others but avoid using medical-grade masks to save them for health care workers. While non-medical grade masks have not been shown to be effective in preventing individuals from contracting the virus, given the evidence about asymptomatic transmission, masks may help prevent infection from someone who is an asymptomatic carrier of the virus. In this changing environment, employers will need to communicate regularly and effectively, as guidelines are continuing to change.

Testing to Identify the Infected and the Immune

Testing for the presence of virus, or diagnostic testing, can be conducted to confirm diagnosis if an individual is experiencing symptoms and seeking medical care, but it has also been a tool for population-wide screening in places like South Korea and can accelerate return to work.

Who Pays for Testing and Who Gets it?

Access and availability to diagnostic testing varies significantly by geography. As employers consider utilizing testing for the purpose of identifying asymptomatic population and screening their employees as part of the screening and return to workplace protocols, the pressures on the testing system, availability of rapid, high volume and inexpensive tests has to be considered. Different testing mechanisms and tests with different accuracy measures can be considered for return to workplace and screening protocols, without putting the pressure on the diagnostic testing resources. While some employers have attempted to conduct testing on-site in an effort to facilitate a return to workplace strategy, as of July 2020 the shortages of test kits in many areas and lack of rapid testing technology indicates that a population wide testing is not a tool most can deploy right now in their return to workplace protocols.

Can We Identify Who is Immune to Lead the RTW?

Antibody testing is another possibility for one day establishing which employees have been previously infected and are now potentially immune to the virus. However, the scientific evidence is still inconclusive, with uneven reliability rates, and concerns about the interpretation of such tests. Some tests have been deployed, but much is unknown, regarding the level of antibodies needed for immunity or how long immunity would last. Some countries, such as Germany, had contemplated “immunity passports” for those who have antibodies for the virus, but given the lack of necessary scientific knowledge of its effectiveness, most are cautious on implementation.

Conduct Temperature and Symptom Checks

Temperature checks have been a widely utilized tool to screen for symptomatic employees. For employers who implement this approach, there are several different options for conducting temperature checks:

  • Asking employees to take their temperatures before leaving home (with guidance to ensure accurate temperature capture and potentially also to provide employees with high quality thermometers).
  • Having staff on hand to check temperatures when employees enter the office (or providing thermometers for self-checks).
  • Having employees walk through scanners if they’re available.

Symptom Checkers

Another option for preventing infected employees from entering the workplace is screening for symptoms. For example, one employer has developed their own symptom app that asks three questions, developed after consultation with health experts. The symptom tracker app will indicate red (for symptomatic) or green (for asymptomatic) and will be date- and time -stamped. Coordinators in the front lobby will make sure all employees are completing the questions in the app every morning. Another company is planning to have their designated, qualified team members ask workers about symptoms and take temperatures upon entering the building each morning. Brief questionnaires utilized for screening typically include questions regarding symptoms, recent known exposure and travel history. After measures such as these are taken, employees who are symptomatic and/or found to be positive for COVID-19 can be quarantined for at least 14 days or until negative test result can be produced.

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Create a Clean, Safe, Hygienic Workplace

Employers are setting up sanitizing and handwashing stations throughout their plants and offices. This is also an area where it can be empowering for employees to feel like they have some sort of control over their own health and can take part in keeping themselves safe. Some factories in China have placed mats soaked in disinfectant at workplace entrances. Additional deep cleaning and sanitizing of the worksite by office cleaning companies are also common. Communications and posters reminding employees to wash their hands, cover their mouth when they cough and stay home when they are sick are critical to reinforce.

Many employers have also recognized that emotional safety is just as important as physical safety. Supporting the behavioral health needs of the employees and their family members may take many forms, including introducing programs with virtual access to behavioral health therapy, communicating the availability of EAP resources and other wellness programs already in place. Communicating any changes with empathy and making sure that managers understand that employees may feel a range of emotions about returning to the workplace – some happy to return, others fearful, is critical. Behavioral health supports for both frontline employees and leaders are essential, as each of the employee groups may face some level of emotional challenge with returning to the workplace, based on their work and their personal situation.

Putting Contact Tracing in Place

When an employee tests positive for the virus, employers must have a robust plan in place for ensuring that they are reported to local health officials, do not return to the workplace and remain in self-quarantine until they can pass the screening protocols and are virus free. In addition, employers may be required to contact trace and identify other employees who came in contact with the infected individual and then notify those employees of their exposure to an employee who tested positive. Companies have adapted their leave policies to pay for the time they require their employees to remain in quarantine due to confirmed illness or workplace exposure.

Conclusion

As companies consider their return-to-workplace strategy, they need to consider the policies in each individual country, state and locality. It is important to not only consider the issues the company and employees are facing today but also what well-being needs will emerge. Being responsive, transparent and adaptive is key to navigating the broad and dynamic set of considerations impacting the time and scope of returning to the workplace and reopening the economy.  For more details see our “Return to Workplace Employer Guide” which explores each of these areas in detail. 

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

  1. Define Scope of Return to Workplace and Continuously Adjust Who Returns and When
  2. Set Expectations: This is Not a Return to Normal
  3. Implement Physical Distancing in the Workplace
  4. Providing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
  5. Testing to Identify the Infected and the Immune
  6. Conduct Temperature and Symptom Checks
  7. Create a Clean, Safe, Hygienic Workplace
  8. Putting Contact Tracing in Place
  9. Conclusion