As some countries ease restrictions and people prepare to return to work, even though the global health crisis that is Covid-19 is very far from over, we take a look at some of the ways in which employers can make the process a whole lot safer for employees. We also consider some of the expectations from employees when they are considering returning to the workplace environment.
Back in the 1980's and 90's, a much stronger workplace safety culture arose in construction and mining sites across most developed countries. It saw the development and implementation of solid O H & S regimes designed to protect employees working in potentially hazardous environments. We saw the introduction of safety training programs, and the appointment of staff and sometimes entire departments whose primary responsibility was overseeing a company's occupational health and safety directives. In the wake of the Covid19 pandemic, that culture looks set to move into the office environment where traditionally O H & S standards, whilst observed, were not pivotal considerations for many office employees. We're also going to see this culture across the broad spectrum of industries, not just in mining and construction.
Indeed, many workplaces globally could be at a turning point when it comes to health and safety. The 2020 FlexCareers report, which surveyed over 1600 employees, indicates that jobseekers and employees in general have, or will have, significantly different priorities post pandemic. Company health policies for instance are being scrutinised like never before and employees are demanding to know how an employer will take care of their mental and physical health whilst they're at work.
Another interesting find to come out of the survey is that nearly all those surveyed want to be able to work remotely as much as possible. That alone could be a big wakeup call for companies looking to employ the best available talent. If you can't offer flexible working arrangements, including the option to work remotely at least part of the time, you may be passed over for a company that can offer these.
Thus it's clear that key fundamental priorities for employees moving forward will be that the company they work for, or are considering working for:
- Is going to keep them safe in the workplace ie has a strong health and safety policy (89% of survey respondents noted this a key priority). Over half the respondents (53%) also indicated concerns about hygiene and cleanliness in the office environment.
- Offers flexible working arrangements, including working remotely – only 5% of those surveyed apparently miss their office environment enough to want to return to working there exclusively!
The pandemic has also demonstrated just how vulnerable those with very industry and/or job specific skill sets are if their entire industry shuts down. This is undoubtedly part of the reason why the survey results found that:
- 68% of respondents are seriously considering investing in further education and even qualifications in other industries to ensure they have skill sets that line up with future employment opportunities and thus protect themselves against job losses in the future
- 40% said they are seriously considering changing careers
- 45% intend to move into a completely different industry
- 18% will be looking for second incomes
Further, job security expectations indicate that many believe, or assume, that they will be facing redundancy in a mere 3 years time. Therefore, they're going to try and get all the skills they possibly can before they're forced to find another job.
So, as the world's workers consider their 'return to work' options, how can employers provide them with the safe workplace environment they're looking for?Know Your Numbers, And Who Your Essential Workers Are
Manage your staff numbers. If you have a large team, allowing them all to return to the workplace at the same time is highly risky and very difficult to manage with respect to protecting employee health.
Work out before you let anyone return to the workplace how many can safely be allowed in any workplace area at one time as per social distancing requirements. Even if you are somewhere that has successfully managed to eradicate community transmission of Covid19 or keep it so low social distancing requirements and gathering numbers have been relaxed, don't be tempted to get too complacent in the workplace. Continuing to maintain good distancing rules, and limiting numbers in enclosed spaces is critical to keeping viruses out of your work place. If necessary, have employees take extra precautions such as wearing masks and/or gloves if handling communal equipment.
Initially at least consider only allowing those essential workers who need to be in the workplace, or who can't work remotely, to return. Encourage, or make it easy for those who can work remotely to continue doing so.
Consider implementing a staggered return, and have rotating groups of staff working in the office. It would be wise to keep each employee in the same group throughout to minimise exposure and make contact tracing easier should anyone contract a virus. The groups may work in the office on alternate days, or do a particular shift each day. When they're not working in the office, they can be working remotely.
Ensure you have all essential areas of business covered within these rotating groups and that you don't have too many people in the one work area on at the same time. This will allow you to manage social distancing protocols more effectively.
Rearrange equipment (work stations, seating, desks etc) to reduce density and ensure adequate social distancing can be maintained.
In the case of fixed equipment and furniture, rearrange the seating if possible to observe correct seating density as per social distancing requirements. If this can't be done, reduce the number of employees in the area at any one time to safer numbers.
Consider converting areas such as conference rooms into temporary work spaces so more people can be accommodated.
Ensure social distancing protocols ARE maintained.
Most places that deal directly with the public have put up clear safety shields that protect both staff and the public, and put down directional floor markers to reduce the risk of people bumping into each other face to face. Consider doing something similar in your office or workplace by putting screens or shields between desks and workstations.
Direct foot traffic around the building with directional arrows.
Allocate, or preferably dedicate, a desk or workspace to each employee. Rotating or 'hot-desking' work stations and workspaces introduces the risk of cross contamination and is an unnecessary risk. If this is can't be done, ensure the area and equipment is thoroughly cleaned between occupants.
Keep track of who sits where.
Don't forget about areas like canteens, staff rooms, rest rooms, tearooms, communal tea and coffee facilities, ablution facilities, communication and IT hubs et al. These spaces also need to be reconfigured to allow staff to keep their distance from each other.
Clean, Clean, And Clean Again
Establishing a shift work or rotational roster to reduce and control employee numbers on site at any one time will allow for the implementation of additional cleaning schedules in between shifts. That way, all employees are coming into a clean work environment.
Make it clear to staff which desks, work spaces, bathrooms, break rooms and various other facilities they're to use. Prioritise the cleaning of these areas.
Have a good idea of the circulation paths employees take during their shift, and the equipment and facilities they're likely to use. This will help identify the areas and equipment that need immediate cleaning should a staff member develop symptoms.
Keep a record of everyone who is working in the same vicinity so that anyone who could potentially have been exposed via an infected co-worker can be identified.
Implement a stringent cleaning policy that utilises recommended Covid19 cleaning practises, including cleaning products and cleaning methods.
Communicate both the policy and the cleaning regime to all staff. Providing some type of 'proof' system that the cleaning has been done can help employees feel safer.
Ensure all personal workspaces as well as shared touch points and open spaces are included in the cleaning regime, and that absolutely nothing gets missed, ever.
Enforce the cleaning regime! There's no point in having one if it isn't adhered to.
Set up hand sanitising stations throughout the working space. Perhaps even consider supplying each desk with a bottle of sanitiser and a packet of wipes.
In The Event Of An Emergency
Have a clearly designated isolation room or rooms so that anyone who displays symptoms whilst at work or on the premises can be promptly and effectively moved away from everyone else and kept isolated.
Communicate the whereabouts of these rooms to all employees from management down.
Make sure everyone is aware of the protocols to be implemented should someone display symptoms whilst at work, including the phone numbers of the relevant health authorities.
General Protocols For Ensuring A Covid Free Work Place
Consider introducing a screening test for all employees before they can enter the premises. This is particularly important on mine sites, and is already implemented on most sites. The test should include a series of questions including recent travel history and health symptoms, and may also involve a temperature check (mandatory on most mine sites). If the employee fails any part of the screen, they should remain at home and not be allowed onto the premises.
There's no doubt that for many companies in most countries the work place environment may have changed permanently. Companies have been leapfrogged into implementing advanced communication, connectivity and collaborative technology, and allowing people to work remotely. Some companies may have been resisting these changes either for financial reasons, or because they didn't trust employees to work unsupervised from home. The pandemic has changed all that, and for many people returning to a formal workplace environment on a permanent basis will be a thing of the past. Moving forward, companies will need to establish effective communication platforms and procedures so these remote workers are 'kept in the loop'.
Appointing a 'Covid Officer' is also a good strategy. This person is the go to for most things Covid related, including latest updates on state / region / county / country / global policies being implemented. It could also be this person's responsiblity to ensure covid safe practices are complied with, cleaning schedules are adhered to, and also be a sounding board for employee concerns around Covid.
There's also the very real likelihood that sudden outbreaks of community transmission will catapult entire regions, if not countries, back into lockdown, forcing businesses to close down again, and again, and again. Likewise, should an employee suddenly get Covid19 it will force a return to remote working. This is highly disruptive, and highlights the need for companies to have contingency plans that can be implemented fast and effectively in these times. Continuing to allow employees to work remotely even when it appears to be safe to return to the workplace is one way of reducing these disruptions. Maintaining the technology platforms that facilitate this, and not dismantling them because it 'appears' to be safe to do so, is critical.
Consider Your Employees
For employees who have been away from the work place for months, returning to work may be somewhat akin to starting a new job. The world has changed. People's circumstances have changed. Thousands have lost family members, friends and work colleagues, and may be in poor health themselves courtesy of having had Covid19. When they do return, there will often be essential changes to their working environment. They may not be working where they used to work. They may now be sharing a workspace with someone on another shift due to the implementation of distancing measures. There will be all sorts of new protocols and rules to follow. Some of their former work mates may never be returning. These are all emotionally and psychologically challenging issues, and will require tact, understanding, and sensitivity on the part of management.
Announcements around changes to operating environments for example should be done with tact and an awareness of the impacts it will make on affected employees. Managers will need to acknowledge and address employee concerns, no matter how trivial they may seem at the time.
Ultimately, a motivated workforce with good morale is one of a business's best assets. It's also an asset businesses are going to need more than ever as entire economies rebuild. Building motivation in these uncertain times though is going to take some creative thinking. Consider looking outside the square for motivational activities and ways to keep team members focused, safe and comfortable. And remember, communication is key, particularly for team members who may be working remotely.