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

Getty Images/Luis Alvarez 

As employers 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. The problem is that the coronavirus is likely to affect people for the foreseeable future. This makes how to return to work safely an obvious goal when employees working on-site is essential to the functioning of your business.

Employee Expectations About Returning to Work Safely

While many employees have jobs that have allowed them to remote work from home, others have worked on-site through the entire pandemic. But, more employees anticipate returning to work in the next couple of months. In a study by people management platform Reflektive, 34% of employees actually anticipate that work-life will be back to normal six months from now. 

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 a safe and clean workplace will be most important to company culture post-COVID-19, followed closely by work-from-home flexibility (65%). 

Gallup research over the course of 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. Pre-COVID-19, the analytics and consulting firm had already discovered that weekly face time with coworkers and managers seems to affect engagement and that the optimal engagement boost occurs when employees spend 60-80% of their time working off-site. And by April, 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 coronavirus pandemic continues.

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, including social distancing, 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 includes 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, and taking special care with sanitation, and scheduling shared use areas
  • Provide training to employees about best practices in how to stay safe, work safely, and avoid infecting other employees

A couple of these recommendations need further description.

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. According to a survey from outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, mask requirements will be nearly universal; nearly 93% of companies will provide and/or require workers to wear masks. And, masks will not be limited to just workers; 71% of companies will provide and/or require visitors to wear masks, too. Nearly all of the survey respondents–96%–will limit the number of workers on-site so that appropriate social distancing is practiced. Keep in mind Gallup’s research cited earlier about optimal employee face time.

The same 93% of companies responded that they will be limiting or prohibiting gatherings in shared spaces, such as conference rooms, break rooms, lunchrooms, and bathrooms. These 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. Meanwhile, 57% of respondents said they will limit elevator use.

In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that for employees to return to work safely, employers must take actions such as installing barriers, taking additional steps to minimize employee interaction such as holding virtual meetings, scheduling times for the use of shared facilities, and not sharing equipment or workstations.

Maintaining a Healthy Work Environment

In the aforementioned Challenger, Gray & Christmas survey, nearly 93% of respondents said they will provide sanitizing products including hand sanitizers and bleach wipes to workers. Fifty-seven percent, meanwhile, will take the temperature of workers upon their arrival to work and will survey workers to see if they have had any risk of exposure.

An overwhelming majority (89%) will take special precautions by cleaning and disinfecting work areas and stations more frequently, and more than half of the companies said they will conduct contact tracing if an employee is diagnosed with COVID-19. 

Delving further into hi-tech safety protocols, the survey also reported: 

  • Half of the respondents said that they would survey workers to contact trace
  • Seventeen percent said they will use an app to determine with whom workers have been in contact
  • Nearly 36% said they will use internal experts to conduct the tracing
  • Fourteen percent said they would use all of these methods 

However, no company said it will alert health officials to rely on them to conduct contact tracing.

Providing Training and Information to Employees

In addition to adhering to the above-recommended safety precautions, employers have additional 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 these factors:

  • The more closely employees interact with others and the longer that interaction is taking place, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread. Since the coronavirus spreads through the air, some people may have the virus and not know it since they have no symptoms.
  •  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 they have been exposed to the virus, the employee should isolate and stay home for 14 days.
  • Employees need to learn the employer’s policies on such factors 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 personal distance when the weather cooperates.
  • Every employee has the responsibility to monitor their own health and take precautions to keep other employees safe from the coronavirus. The CDC offers additional guidelines. 

The Bottom Line

While there is an abundance of 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.