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Transitioning Back to The Workplace – Part 1: Steps to Take to Create a Safe Environment

May 20, 2020

The question of when and how around the topic of transitioning back to the workplace is top of mind with many employers and business owners. And as businesses around the country consider reopening there are many factors to consider. For example, they must simultaneously review safety measures and operational changes that will help ensure a smooth transition. Taking precautions and implementing necessary processes will help businesses keep their workplace safe and their employees feeling less anxious as they begin to return to the workplace.

The first step you should take is to create a customized “reopening plan” for your business. To help you determine what you should include in your reopening plan, we have outlined several key areas.

Consider Preliminary Questions Before Reopening

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidance to assist employers in deciding whether to reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Along with the recommendations issued by state and local health departments when determining the most appropriate actions to take, you should pay particular attention to these steps. According to CDC, a business should consider three questions when deciding whether to reopen:

  • Is the business in a community no longer requiring significant mitigation?
  • Will reopening be in compliance with state and local orders?
  • Will you be ready to protect employees at higher risk for severe illness (e.g., via teleworking or assignment of tasks that minimize contact)?

You should only consider reopening if you can answer yes to each of the three questions.

Take Recommended Safety Actions

Once you feel comfortable that your organization can satisfy the three preliminary questions, you should next adopt the CDC’s recommended actions to prevent and reduce transmission among employees, as specified in the CDC Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers Responding to Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19), May 2020 . They include:

  • Promoting healthy hygiene practices, such as hand washing and wearing face masks
  • Intensifying cleaning, disinfection, and ventilation, with particular emphasis on the regular cleaning of high-touch, non-porous surfaces like doors
  • Social distancing, and consider installing physical barriers between workstations, reconfiguring seating to ensure more than six feet between seats, and staggering gathering times, while holding no large events
  • Canceling non-essential travel, and encouraging alternative commuting and telework
  • Training all staff in the above safety actions

Whether a business can require an employee to wear a face mask may depend on state or local requirements of the business, as well as industry standards. While the CDC recommends that the general public wear face masks to slow the rate of infection, some jurisdictions require employees to wear face masks when interacting with the general public. If your jurisdiction requires that employees of your business wear face masks, you should consider providing them to employees. Employers who allow employees to use their own masks must still ensure the masks’ compliance with local requirements, if any. Even in jurisdictions where businesses must require their employees to wear face masks, be aware that some employees with disabilities may not be able to wear a mask and be ready to accommodate those persons (perhaps most easily, by offering telework).

Adapting Your Workplace

To help ensure social distancing, adapt the physical workplace to permit social distancing to the extent feasible. First, continue to encourage telework whenever possible and consistent with business operations. If you have shared office arrangements, open floor worksites, or close common areas where employees are likely to congregate and interact, consider reconfiguring these spaces. Additional considerations for soft, non-permanent, spatial changes in the workplace prior to reopening include the following:

  • Partitions between receptionists and others that may directly interact with the employees and the public
  • Separating employees who work in adjacent cubicle spaces
  • Removing every other chair in break areas and lunchrooms
  • Adding partitions to tables where employees congregate during breaks
  • Requiring employees to walk in designated one-way lanes in hallways and corridors to avoid “head-on” pedestrian traffic
  • Converting communal restrooms to single-seat bathrooms to avoid close contact between users;
  • Increasing the number of air changes by the HVAC system in your workplace
  • Arranging for food trucks or other food delivery services to serve employees outside to separate employees during lunch breaks
  • Providing hand sanitizer stations outside each restroom and each door that is commonly touched or used
  • Upgrading your teleconference equipment to allow for more teleconferences
  • Restricting the use of shared items and
  • Arranging for pick-up and drop-off delivery of packages to be done outside

Furthermore, the strategic staggering of employee shifts/days and rest and meal breaks may accomplish a measure of social distancing without the necessity of moving furniture or installing partitions.

Even with the best behavioral practices, a shared workplace is still one with lots of shared surfaces, so a cleaning and disinfecting protocol will be critical. The CDC’s Reopening Guidance for Cleaning and Disinfecting Public Spaces, Workplaces, Businesses, Schools and Homes is a great resource for this purpose. The CDC recommends that businesses create, implement, and maintain/revise a cleaning and disinfecting protocol. Evaluate your workplace to determine what kinds of surfaces and materials make up that area. Most surfaces and objects, such as those not regularly touched will just need normal routine cleaning. Frequently touched surfaces and objects like light switches, doorknobs, tables, countertops, and faucets, will need to be cleaned and then disinfected regularly to further reduce the risk of germs on surfaces and objects. Objects made of soft and porous materials, such as carpet, rugs, or material in seating areas, should be thoroughly cleaned or laundered. If possible, the CDC recommends considering removing soft and porous materials in high traffic areas.

Finally, consult state and local orders regarding the requirement of written safety plans. Indiana, for example, requires that businesses create written plans, provide them to employees and post for public viewing. In Indiana plans must address employee health screening processes, enhanced cleaning and disinfecting practices, the ability of employees to wash hands or use hand sanitizer, and compliance with social distancing rules of the CDC. Some California counties have a similar requirement for essential businesses allowed to remain or reopen during shelter in place orders and provide a downloadable form available on county websites for this purpose.

Adjusting HR Policies

You may also need to change policies and practices to accommodate the desired or required behavioral and distancing protocols. Conduct a thorough analysis of existing policies and amend or supplement as necessary. Some of these policies may include those related to:

  • Attendance
  • Vacation/paid time off
  • Remote work
  • Work hours, including start/stop time, breaks, lunch times, flexible hours, and staggered work hours
  • Timekeeping including clock in/out procedures
  • Leave policies including sick leave
  • Travel policies including business and personal travel and
  • Information technology and usage

If you do change these policies, communicate them broadly to your workforce to avoid any surprises on their return and promote a smooth re-entry to the workplace.

Social distancing will also no doubt create a challenge for employee engagement, in particular, engagement in the form of employee events. Some celebration and recognition activities common before COVID-19, such as large employee meetings or company events such as picnics, can’t occur in the same manner as they did pre-pandemic. Evaluate activities that employees had enjoyed before the pandemic, if they can occur with or without modification, if they should be eliminated for the time being, and how you might replace them. Ask your employees which activities they value the most. If activities must be eliminated or modified, gather their input and ideas on alternatives. You can see which activities are truly valued by employees and how they can be modified or replaced with activities that are meaningful to the team and can still drive employee engagement in a safe environment.

Guidance on Preparing Workplace

Don’t forget about the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA issued Guidance On Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 which discusses steps that employers can take to minimize risk to employees from COVID-19. The document also provides guidance for classifying employee level of risk and provides additional recommendations for each level. Even though no OSHA standards directly address COVID-19, the General Duty Clause is likely to apply at most workplaces. Under the General Duty Clause employers are required to furnish employees a workplace that is free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious injury.

If you are a TriNet customer and would like more information about how TriNet can help you transition, please contact your TriNet Customer Experience contact.

Visit the TriNet COVID-19 Preparedness Center for critical and up-to-date information as well as the impact of changing regulations on small and medium-size businesses. We will continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation and provide updates as necessary

This communication is for informational purposes only; it is not legal, tax or accounting advice; and is not an offer to sell, buy or procure insurance.

This post may contain hyperlinks to websites operated by parties other than TriNet. Such hyperlinks are provided for reference only. TriNet does not control such websites and is not responsible for their content. Inclusion of such hyperlinks on TriNet.com does not necessarily imply any endorsement of the material on such websites or association with their operators.

Samantha_Headshot.png
AML_UCLA_edited_for_blog.jpg
Samantha Wellington
Senior Vice President,
Chief Legal Officer and Secretary,
TriNet
Annmarie Liermann
Corporate Counsel,
Claims, TriNet


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