How to Return to Work Safely During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Both Employers and Employees Can Take Steps to Safeguard Health

Workers social distancing in the office cafeteria
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Getty Images/Luis Alvarez 

As workplaces open their doors, and employees are expected to return to work, the safety of their workforce and those they interact with should be top of mind for employers and managers. While COVID-19 is likely to affect people for the foreseeable future, understanding how to return to work safely is essential.

Employee Expectations About Returning to Work Safely

While many employees have jobs that have allowed them to remotely work from home, others have worked on-site through the entire pandemic. But as vaccinations increase, more employers are beginning to lay plans for a return to the office. According to a study by staffing firm LaSalle, the majority of employers expect to have their employees back at work by fall 2021.

This sense of optimism about returning to work, however, is coupled with an increased need for safety and flexibility. According to a survey conducted by TELUS International, a global customer experience and digital solutions provider, nearly 75% of respondents believe that a safe and clean workplace will be most important to company culture post-COVID-19, followed closely by work-from-home flexibility at 65%. 

Analytics and consulting firm Gallup's research throughout 2020 supports this employee view of flexibility, and it should be a key consideration when employers plan how to bring their staff safely back to work. Before COVID-19, Gallup had already discovered that weekly face time with co-workers and managers seems to affect engagement and that the optimal engagement boost occurs when employees spend 60% to 80% of their time working off-site.

By April 2020, Gallup research showed that "three in five U.S. workers who have been doing their jobs from home during the coronavirus pandemic would prefer to continue to work remotely as much as possible."

Returning to Work Safely

As employers continue to weigh the impact of remote work and consider adequate guidelines for their business, data about how to actually return to the workplace safely has accumulated as the pandemic has continued.

Note

The most effective employers have considered how best to decrease the spread of COVID-19 and lower the impact in their workplaces. This will enable employees to trust that their culture and work environment are helping them return to work safely. 

This should include activities to:

  • Prevent and reduce transmission among employees by implementing social distancing, having less congestion in common areas, and wearing masks
  • Maintain healthy business operations that identify all areas and job tasks with potential exposures to COVID-19, and control measures to eliminate or reduce such exposure
  • Maintain a healthy work environment that includes asking employees to have temperature checks, telling employees to stay home when sick, taking special care with sanitation, and scheduling shared use areas
  • Provide training to employees about best practices for staying safe, working safely, and avoiding infecting other employees

Preventing Transmission Among Employees

Employees’ expectations of employers include wearing masks, personal distancing, and not allowing congestion in common work areas such as restrooms, lunchrooms, and conference rooms.

A survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) in May 2020 found that 86% of HR professionals required or planned to require their employees to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks at work. And 80% planned to provide or pay for that PPE.

In the survey, 83% of companies responded that they will be limiting or prohibiting gatherings in shared spaces, such as conference rooms, break rooms, lunchrooms, and bathrooms. Many employers also said they will be maintaining social distancing practices, with fewer people in workspaces and not allowing workers to come within six feet of each other.

In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that for employees to return to work safely, employers take actions such as the following:

  • Installing barriers
  • Holding virtual meetings to minimize employee interaction
  • Scheduling times for the use of shared facilities
  • Not sharing equipment or workstations

Maintaining a Healthy Work Environment

In the SHRM survey, 89% of respondents said they are requiring their employees to wash their hands or use hand sanitizer when entering work locations and going to/from their breaks. And 73% are implementing onsite temperature-screening procedures upon their employees' arrivals to work.

Many organizations are turning toward new procedures in order to reduce any potential risk of virus spread among employees. In the survey, 77% of workplaces were adding or considering adding new "contactless" procedures, while 68% were implementing additional "touchless" features at their worksites.

Providing Training and Information to Employees

In addition to adhering to the above-recommended safety precautions, employers have responsibilities to educate and communicate with employees. The employees need to understand and support the measures their employers are taking to allow them to safely return to work. 

The employees also need to understand the recommendations of the CDC, which include the following:

  • If employees return to work, they need to continue to protect themselves by practicing everyday preventive actions. They should keep these items on hand when returning to work: a mask, tissues, and hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  • If an employee thinks they have COVID-19, or that they have been exposed to the virus, they should isolate and stay home for 14 days.
  • Employees should learn their employer’s policies on topics such as personal distancing at least six feet from others, limiting most in-person meetings, avoiding enclosed spaces where other workers are present, and talking outside at a distance when the weather cooperates.
  • Every employee has the responsibility to monitor their own health and take precautions to keep other employees safe from exposure to the virus.

The Bottom Line

While there are many protocols to put into place, and challenges to address, such as creating workplace flexibility, employers who take the initiative and follow these important recommendations can help ensure that their employees can return to work safely.