In many areas, employees are returning to workplaces. Offices, stores, restaurants, warehouses, and manufacturing facilities are reopening. Employees rightly have questions and concerns, and human resource departments are dealing with unprecedented situations that have no playbook. How should HR departments address employee concerns, while managing a safe, orderly reopening process? Here are some tips on how to reopen the workplace safely.

Decide Whom to Call Back

Reopening your business doesn’t mean bringing every employee back into the building. Many states (New Jersey and Pennsylvania among them) limit employers to recalling only the minimum number of employees needed for critical operations. Even in states without that restriction, bringing only critically needed employees back into the facility helps safeguard everyone’s health and safety.

Reopening is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Use these questions to help manage callbacks:

  • Who do we need back and who can telework?
  • Are all segments/teams/departments critical to our on-site operations?
  • Do we need to go back to the previous normal?
  • Do we want to go back to the previous normal?

The silver lining to the dark cloud of the pandemic is the opportunity to rethink your operations. Rather than automatically returning to the “old way” of doing things, take the time to analyze what was working, what wasn’t, and what can either be changed incrementally or rethought entirely.

Once you have an idea of who should be brought back, the next step is how.

Build a Back-to-Work Task Force

Bringing employees back into the workplace shouldn’t be the sole responsibility of HR. The best practice is to form a task force that includes non-HR personnel. That task force should formulate strategies for different contingencies before they occur, to help build an adaptable and resilient organization.

First, include representatives from all key areas of the organization—IT, Finance, Legal, Executive, and HR. Identify who will be responsible for key decisions and operations, such as:

  • Responding to emergencies/urgent matters
  • Protecting workers and facilities
  • Monitoring changing circumstances within the organization
  • Monitoring external circumstances, such as infection/hospitalization rates
  • Keeping abreast of federal and state guidelines, regulations, and recommendations
  • Planning for extended or spikes of absenteeism
  • Ensuring staff compliance
  • Addressing questions and concerns
  • Monitoring and complying with HIPAA and other health, security, and privacy regulations

Taking a proactive approach is much more effective and efficient than scrambling to respond to a situation or taking an ad hoc, seat-of-the-pants approach.

Prepare to Reopen

Once you’ve formed your task force, the next step is to build a safe and healthy workplace, whether that means bringing employees back all at once or in phases. This process starts with a plan that should:

  • Address the specific needs of your workplace
  • Identify all areas and job tasks with potential exposures to COVID-19
  • Include control measures to eliminate or reduce such exposures
  • Use new technologies and practices to decrease contact and increase safety
  • Include a business interruption/disruption plan if pandemic circumstances change
  • Employ change management skills to transition back to the office
  • Emphasize increased communications and responsiveness
  • Include an action plan if one or more employees tests positive for COVID-19

Keep the Workplace Safe

Employees are counting on your company to provide a safe and healthy workplace. To accomplish that, you’ll need to rethink your facilities, your policies and procedures, and employee behavior and schedules

Start with your policies and procedures. Make sure you have policies that meet all applicable federal, state, and local regulations and guidelines. It’s critical to decide in advance what you’ll do, for example, if an employee tests positive for COVID-19. How will you do contact tracing to protect other employees? Will you require an employee who shows COVID-19 symptoms to quarantine at home and only return after a negative test or clearance from a medical provider? These are questions and policies you should resolve before bringing staff back.

If you can, minimize employee contact by:

  • Staggering shifts and break/arrival/departure times
  • Rethink/Reconfigure common areas, such as break rooms and kitchens
  • Eliminate and discourage as many meetings and face-to-face interactions as possible
  • Implement flexible sick leave policies so potentially ill employees don’t come to work

To keep your workplace safer, clean and sanitize your facility regularly, especially common and high-traffic areas. Install shields or barriers if possible, and supply employees with personal protection equipment (PPE), such as masks and shields. Make sure they all have sanitation supplies, as well as training in how to use them.

Be understanding and supportive of high-risk employees, or those who are caring for high-risk family members. Be aware that some employees will be fearful or reluctant to return to the workplace; they shouldn’t be forced to return. Be as empathetic and flexible as you can.

Finally, rethink and minimize business travel. The less contact your employees have with others, the lower the odds of contracting COVID-19.

Avoid Conflict

You do not want your operations or employee safety to turn political. Workers may have strong opinions on COVID-19 and protective measures; do not allow those political opinions to spill into the workplace. Make it clear that individual beliefs will not be allowed to affect behavior or compliance at work. These are emotional times; you want to decrease emotionally charged reactions in your building.

Reap the Benefits

By following these guidelines, your organization’s “new normal” can be a safe, healthy environment where employees can be productive while feeling valued. The benefits will touch every level of your organization.

The Lindenberger Group has been helping organizations of all types and sizes manage challenging HR situations, including how to reopen the workplace safely. If you have any questions, or we can help you in any way, please contact us online or at 609-630-1049.