COVID-19: Return-to-work considerations for offices

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has interrupted many businesses and offices across the country. While it’s unclear how long COVID-19 will continue to affect organisations, many employers are looking to the future of employees returning to work.

Echoing the sentiments of public health officials, a return to normalcy won’t be like flipping a switch, but rather a gradual effort. In preparation for reopening your business and asking employees to come back to work, it’s imperative that your company thoughtfully constructs a return to work plan for its employees to keep everyone healthy and safe following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Please note that this article should be used for informational purposes only and should not supersede applicable national guidance. Additionally, please review any workplace-specific considerations, which could be more involved depending on the industry you operate in, when drafting your return to work plan.

Return to Work Plans: Introduction

A return to work plan is typically created to help reintegrate workers who have been injured or have been on leave. The plan includes details on how the worker will gradually return to work and any job-related specifics. Its purpose is to formalise steps for a safe and quick return to work.

There are many benefits of return to work plans for both the employer and the employee. Employers can enjoy increased employee engagement, proactive cost containment, reduced turnover, increased communication and improved morale with an established return to work plan. And it’s been proven that employees who go through return to work plans are able to get back to work quicker than those who don’t, meaning that employers will see increased productivity following an employee’s return to work.

Employees also benefit from return to work plans, as they feel supported by their employer, which increases their engagement and loyalty to the company. Going through a return to work plan also helps them get back to work faster and increases the likelihood that they feel secure and stable in their role.

The benefits of return to work plans are undeniable. While these plans are typically customised on an individual basis, you can use the basics of a return to work plan to build your company’s approach to asking employees to return to work following the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 Return to Work Plans

COVID-19 has caused many businesses to shut down or transition their employees to work from home, disrupting daily work life for many. As stay-at-home regulations are scaled back and all businesses are allowed to resume as normal, your employees will be asked to come back to work. While they may not be coming back from an injury or leave, you need to have a plan in place for all employees to safely and successfully return to work.

While you may need to tailor your organisation’s COVID-19 return to work plan to employees’ specific needs (e.g., childcare arrangements, caregiving responsibilities and health issues), having a generalised plan in place can help you safely reopen your business.

Your COVID-19 return to work plan should include the following:

  • Anticipated return to work date—With the uncertainty that COVID-19 has brought, it’s important to give clear information and dates when employees are to return to work whenever possible. Be sure to be flexible with your dates, though, as national orders are frequently updated.
  • Disinfecting and cleaning measures—Because COVID-19 can remain on surfaces long after they’ve been touched, it’s important that your business frequently cleans and disinfects the facility. Some best practices include:
    • Cleaning and disinfecting all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace, such as workstations, keyboards, phones, handrails and doorknobs.
    • Discouraging workers from using other workers’ phones, desks, offices, or other tools and equipment, when possible. If necessary, clean and disinfect them before and after use.
    • Providing disposable wipes so that commonly used surfaces can be wiped down by employees before each use.
  • Social distancing protocol—Social distancing is the practice of deliberately increasing the physical space between people to avoid spreading illness. In terms of COVID-19, social distancing best practices for businesses can include:
    • Avoiding gatherings of 10 or more people
    • Instructing workers to maintain at least 2 metres of distance from other people
    • Hosting meetings virtually when possible
    • Limiting the number of people at the worksite to essential personnel only
    • Discouraging people from shaking hands
  • Employee screening procedures—To keep employees safe, consider conducting screening procedures to identify potentially ill employees before they enter the office. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) permits employers to measure employees’ body temperatures before allowing them to enter the worksite. Any employee screening should be implemented on a non-discriminatory basis, and all information gleaned should be treated as confidential medical information under the Equality Act 2010. The ICO has advised employers that they are permitted to inform your staff that a co-worker may have contracted COVID-19, but it is unlikely that you will be obligated to reveal the employee’s identity. Employers should not divulge more information than necessary about the situation. In addition to measuring body temperature before entering the workplace, employers may also be able to have a private medical provider administer a swab test to check employees for COVID-19 before allowing them to return to work. The ICO noted that it is unlikely that organisations will be asked to share health details for individual employees with authorities, but if deemed necessary, data protection laws will not apply, and employers will be obligated to comply.
  • Employee safety training—Your return to work plan should include detailed safety training guidance to ensure that all employees understand how they can prevent the spread of COVID-19. Your plan should discuss the following safety training topics:
    • Respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene—Businesses should encourage good hygiene to prevent the spread of COVD-19. This can involve:
      • Providing tissues and no-touch disposal receptacles
      • Providing soap and water in the workplace
      • Placing hand sanitisers in multiple locations to encourage hand hygiene
      • Reminding employees to not touch their eyes, nose or mouth
    • Personal protective equipment (PPE)—PPE is equipment worn by individuals to reduce exposure to a hazard, in this case, COVID-19. Businesses should focus on training workers on proper PPE best practices. Employees should understand how to properly put on, take off and care for PPE. Training material should be easy to understand and must be available in the appropriate language and literacy level for all workers.
    • Staying home when sick—Encourage employees to err on the side of caution if they’re not feeling well and stay home when they’re sick or are exhibiting common symptoms of COVID-19 (e.g., fever, cough or shortness of breath).
  • Mental health considerations—The COVID-19 pandemic has increased stress levels of employees across the country. It’s important that your return to work plan includes guidance for managing employee mental health concerns when employees return to work.
  • Process for individualised requests—Employees will be returning to work and facing different situations at home or with their health. Your return to work plan should include information about how employees can go about making individualised requests for changes to a return to work plan. Some may have underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk of severe illness with COVID-19, meaning they may not be able to fully return to work. Others may be facing unique childcare arrangements due to schools and day cares being closed. Be flexible and compassionate in your response to individualised requests.

Your return to work plan should be tailored to your business’ unique needs and should follow national regulations. Reach out to us for assistance with creating a unique return to work plan for your organisation.

Return to Work Considerations

Returning to work after the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to bring challenges to your organisation. Some of the most common challenges that you’ll need to be prepared for include the following:

  • Changing worker priorities—If your organisation asked its employees to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, employees may want to still enjoy work from home arrangements even after the office is reopened. Your organisation should be prepared for an increased demand in work from home requests, and you may need to expand your pre-COVID-19 policies to meet this demand. In addition, prospective employees may ask about this benefit when they’re searching for a job within your company.
  • Updating the office layout—Due to social distancing protocols, your organisation may need to reconfigure the office’s layout. Per the guidelines, employee workstations should be 2 metres apart to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
  • Adapting to changing rules and regulations—Due to the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, rules and regulations are constantly changing. You should be prepared to change your business practices if needed to maintain critical operations. This could involve identifying alternative suppliers, prioritising existing customers or suspending portions of your operations.
  • Managing reputational effects—Given the scope of the COVID-19 pandemic and how much is still currently unknown about the situation, people may have strong opinions about your decision to reopen your business. You’ll need to be prepared for the reputational effects of reopening your business. By taking the steps to keep your employees and customers safe and healthy, you can manage reputational effects of opening after the pandemic.

Remember, reopening your office after the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t as simple as opening your doors. You’ll need to carefully evaluate each step of your reopening and gradually ask employees to return to work.

 

Please note that this blog article should be used for informational purposes only and should not supersede applicable national guidance. Additionally, please review any workplace-specific considerations, which could be more involved depending on the industry you operate in, when drafting your return to work plan.Content from Zywave, Inc. provided by TH March.

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