Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, countries and states around the world are working round-the-clock to reduce the spread of this disease by ensuring lockdown of all activities, quarantining people and testing en masse. As the world slowly eases the lockdown regulations and prepares to resume normal life, some businesses are being allowed to operate, albeit under strict conditions, while other businesses are still working on strategies to reopen slowly.
As far as returning to work after the lockdown is concerned, you, as an employer, should take responsibility for assessing the risk of transmission and ensure workplace safety. You have to ensure extensive sanitization of the workplace before your staff return to work. The areas with heavy employee traffic should be the focus, such as work chairs, desks, floors, meeting rooms, and office equipment like fax machines, photocopiers, coffee vending machines, elevator buttons, escalator handrails, door handles and screening areas. Ensure that all IT products such as laptops, monitors, computer peripherals, printers, projectors, and related items are also cleaned and sanitized before the employees start using them.
Your staff’s workstations should also be rearranged to ensure the requisite distance between them -the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a distance of at least 1 metre between people. Also ensure availability of contactless scanners for screening your staff for any symptoms associated with Covid-19.
As per preventive measures laid down by WHO, there should be adequate facilities for washing hands with soap and water, paper towels to dry hands after washing, availability of alcohol-based sanitizers and PPE kits in case of urgent need, follow social distancing norms and wear face masks or respirators at all times to ensure office safety. Make sure you’re your office has enough stock of Covid-19 supplies. Encourage your staff to follow guidelines during their commute to and fro from work, bring home-cooked food, sanitize their laptops/PCs and mobile phones regularly, and ensure that they keep their workstation clean.
You must create awareness among your staff about the dangers of the virus, its method of transmission, measures to prevent transmission, and ideas to educate staff about workplace safety. Notices to this effect can be placed at workstations, restrooms, kitchen and meeting rooms. Talking about meeting rooms, while the novel coronavirus has changed the way we work, it is unlikely that we will keep relying entirely on video conferencing to collaborate or conduct meetings, nothing can replace the human touch. So, how do you conduct meetings in such a scenario and what do you do to keep office safety guidelines in place?
First, you need to consider whether a video conference can replace the meeting. If not, can you limit the number of participants for the meeting or will it be feasible to conduct the meeting in two parts so that fewer people are present in the meeting room. Once you have answers to these questions, you need to plan the seating arrangement, ensure availability of tissues, sanitizers, masks for the attendees and also keep ready a response plan if someone at the meeting becomes ill. Encourage your staff to bring their own notepad and pens to take notes so that there is minimum surface contact. You also need to make sure that your meeting venue is adequately ventilated.
As far as your support staff including receptionists, security guards, cafeteria and housekeeping staff are concerned, you need to ask yourself if you need all of them to come to work right after lockdown or in a staggered manner. Keeping the support staff to the necessary minimum immediately after lockdown would be more appropriate.
If your business does not have a Covid-19 preparedness plan, then it is advisable to develop one to help take corrective actions to protect against the virus and maintain workplace safety. Stay up-to-date on all the guidance and instructions from central, state, and municipal authorities, and consider ways to implement those recommendations into your workplace. The plans should consider risks associated with various job profiles and sites, where and how your employees can be affected by the virus, non-occupational risks at home or community settings, etc. Plans should also consider steps that employees should take at home or during travel to reduce the risk of the coronavirus.
You also need to assess the psychological risks associated with COVID-19 that your staff may face, such as workload, fear of contamination and isolation. If any staff can work from home then it should be made voluntary for the person to attend office. You need to understand that the fear of infection is present throughout the entire ecosystem around the individual; the ecosystem that consists of family and society, and it is the fear of this entire ecosystem that also needs to be taken care of through your employee. Hence, employers should implement all possible measures to ensure that their staff feel psychologically safe at work. Psychological safety of employees is an important part of workplace safety. On this note, companies can facilitate their employees with access to counselors or mental health experts. You can also organize sessions where your employees can informally discuss their apprehensions, experiences and views to cheer up each other in such times of distress.
Depending on the infection rate at different areas, there are chances that some of your employees may contract the virus. Depending on the intensity of the symptoms, the employee may be either be in isolation and may continue to work remotely, while some may have to remain absent until their condition improves. Some others may have to take leave from work to be a caregiver if any of their family members have infected the virus. Hence, the company should have a liberal leave policy during such times. Also, the available employees should not be stretched too long as it can cause a breakdown.
Although each one of us are equally vulnerable to this deadly virus, it poses a greater risk to those who have underlying respiratory illness or chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure. As an employer, your task is to classify your employees who suffer from such conditions. It is advisable to ask these employees to continue working from home to keep them as well as to ensure workplace safety. This would also minimize congestion at the office, allowing adequate workspace to the other staff keeping in mind the social distancing rules to be followed.
Public transportation where passengers crowd and travel in large numbers is a hotspot where the virus can spread easily among people. Employees who have their own vehicle to commute are relatively safe in comparison to those who use other means of public transportation to reach their workplace. Hence, companies should consider making arrangement for safe transportation of their employees to mitigate the risk of them coming in close contact with people who might have the virus. Having a safe transportation system for your employees is a vital aspect of maintaining office safety.
Post lockdown, businesses should focus on minimizing all travel related to business. Even after the lockdown is completely lifted, the risk of the virus shall continue to dominate our lives for some time until a permanent solution is found. Until then, maintaining social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands regularly and undertaking travel only when very essential are things that we can do to safeguard ourselves from the virus and maintain workplace safety. Hence, employers must continue to encourage online collaborations, and business-related travel should be limited only to those very important and essential activities. This will also help in reducing some expenses that may come handy in the near future.
Even though authorities have started implementing vaccination drives across the country, it is important to follow the rules and tips mentioned above. The virus has not yet abated and we should not let our guard down. The economy has been slowly opening up, and to ensure that it goes not slide down further, every business must lay down and follow the guidelines to maintain office safety.
As a responsible employer, consider initiating a phase-wise return to work by rotating your staff and reducing the number of your employees who need to be present at the workplace. In a nutshell, a well-planned return to work is the need of the hour.
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