Returning to Work in the “New Normal”
Updated: Jun 23
As cities across the country slowly begin to reopen, both the public and the private sector are going to be tasked with adjusting to the changing workplace conditions brought on by the Corona Virus pandemic. When is the right time to reopen? Will the second wave be worse than the first? How long until everything is back to normal?
Given how rapidly our knowledge of COVID-19 changes, it’s hard to answer these questions definitively. However, the future waits for no one, forcing us to figure out how to resume workplace operations within this “new normal.” Concerned about the process of reopening? Not sure where to start? The following are suggestions on how to assure a safe and secure work environment for your company:
Data has shown that COVID-19 is a highly infectious disease that is most commonly spread through interpersonal interactions. Unlike during the pre-COVID era, workplaces will now need to take precautions to reduce the contamination of their office spaces and of their employees. In order to do so, it is imperative that everyone within the office makes sure to do three things.
Firstly, wear proper protective gear. Everyone must wear face coverings while in common areas within the office, while entering and exiting the building. In an ideal world, all of your employees will have been practicing social distancing during the past few months. However, you cannot assure that. Multiple studies suggest face coverings can have an enormous impact, and are key to maintaining a risk free work environment. However, for them to fully stop spread of the virus, they must be worn by everyone — they act as protection from spreading (keeping in infectious particles) and not protection from contracting (preventing you from breathing infectious particles). As the pace of the office begins to pick up, you and your employees may feel the urge to loosen protective measures — lowering masks during conversations in the conference room or leaving the office to get lunch and leaving masks behind. It’s safest for everyone in the office, and their families, if you can monitor whether your employees are keeping up with the office safety policy and resisting these urges.
Secondly, minimize contact. Everyone in the office is wearing a mask? Great. But what if there is someone asymptomatic yet infected with COVID-19 opening the same door as all of your other employees? Everyone is at risk. So, your office may want to develop a "touchless" way for to conduct everyday activities. This can be achieved through various means, including power-doors, foot-operated doors, and the use of a small handheld sanitary device for pushing elevator buttons, bathroom doors, etc. Another way to protect your workers from unnecessary contact is to establish more private spaces that can be individually monitored and cleaned when necessary. This can be hard for open-plan offices — this is where you may need to spend some time reconfiguring the proximity of desks and the amount of shared space. Remember, this is not a permanent change but is important to adhere by if you want to be able to operate on a relatively “normal” schedule, despite the possibility of second waves.
Third, adjust office etiquette. Make health and safety precautions part of your office’s “new normal.” Set up clean in—clean out policies for people to disinfect spaces before and after they use them, require temperature checks for all members of the office daily and encourage self-supervised symptom screening. You could start by letting workers in using shifts, based on teams and projects, so that someone who isn’t needed in the office in person can continue to work effectively from the safety of their own homes. These actions, on top of regular deep cleaning and sanitation of the office, will act as a second barrier to contamination and help any unwanted outbreaks in the future.
The uncertainty of COVID-19, on top of the tremendous amount of loss that it has brought to the population, has imbedded a deep fear in many people — fear that may be heightened with the thought of returning back to work with colleagues that may not be taking the same level of precautions as them. As an employer, it’s your job to create a safe work environment for your employees and work to prevent these fears from impacting your company culture and the productivity of your workforce. The following three things are important to keep in mind:
Firstly, stay connected. Nothing is going to increase uncertainty and fear more amongst your employees if you keep them in the dark. Be open and honest about what you are working to implement and how you reached that decision — they should understand the constraints that you are working around and vice versa. By keeping a constant flow of communication, you humanize your role as an administrator and mitigator and create a space for employees to stay in touch with you and provide you with information, ideas, or concerns that you may not have considered yourself.
Secondly, practice empathy. People’s lives have been turned upside down by this virus — loved ones lost, livelihoods changed, normalcy challenged. Some of your workforce may be taking it harder than others, especially if they are part of a higher risk population (which may or may not be information that they choose to keep to themselves). You may also have BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) employees who are not only fighting the virus but are also struggling to fight for their lives and are exerting emotional and physical energy daily to fight systemic inequality. It’s important to acknowledge that everyones response to resuming work will not be the same. Though you cannot push your workers into being comfortable to come back to work, you can listen to them, learn from them and work with them to find a solution that works for everyone. Create a new office culture where someone feels encouraged to work from home and/or take time off if their feeling sick and comfortable talking to you about their fears, at all.
Third, stay responsive. As we’ve said, there’s no way to predict how the virus is going to evolve in the future. So, it’s important to stay informed on the developments and be ready to act and make changes if and when they are needed. Let’s say someone in your office does get infected with COVID-19, all you can do is inform all workers, immediately organize a deep clean, and be ready to revert back to remote working — especially if you are uncertain who that worker may have come in contact with. Eventually, you will want to consider a form of contact tracing, be it through video monitoring or another tracking software, so that you can contain any outbreaks in a fast and safe manner.
As much as we’d all like to be able to pick up where we left off, in our offices and in our personal lives, this is unlikely for the foreseeable future. This means that it would be helpful to reinvent your office notions of “productivity,” so as to accommodate for the changing conditions. There are three steps that you can start off with:
Firstly, bridge the gap between remote and in-person work. If you have an employee who is immunocompromised and must work from home, it’s your responsibility to make sure that they feel just as much part of the daily operations as those who are able to come in. Make video conferencing a regular activity and continue to learn to implement digital tools for collaboration — if you would adjust for a client, you should adjust for your workers too.
Secondly, respect boundaries. The uncertainty of a virus like this often creates an obsession over control. It’s normal to feel that the only solution is to adopt a mechanistic method for conducting your business — closely monitoring your employees, asking them for a constant flow of personal information. Remember, this is a challenging change for everyone and it can only be implemented if there is a level of trust and respect between you and your employees — only ask for what you need and be transparent on what your using the data for.
Lastly, emphasize collective responsibility. The livelihood of your company and your workers relies on everyone playing their part in making sure that the office remains safe. Everyone must take the same precautions and everyone should practice flexibility, in case the situation changes quickly. If you are on the same page, as a team, you’re much more likely to ebb and flow, as a company, working around any complications from COVID-19 or other viruses that may emerge.
The above guidelines are simply suggestions — tips and tricks for returning to work in the "new normal." However, the virus is unpredictable and our knowledge around it evolves quickly. As you look to implement any or all of the above suggestions, things may be changing in real time. Thus, it’s important to stay informed on the latest developments, and to keep your employees informed as well. Below are a selection of articles from a various sources — from Healthcare professionals to private sector companies — who/which you can follow to stay up to date as best you can.
"The Risks — Know Them — Avoid Them," by Dr. Erin Bromage, Comparative Immunologist and Professor of Biology (specializing in Immunology) at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. [@ErinBromage]
"A Plan to Safely Reopen the U.S. Despite Inadequate Testing." by Dr. Abraar Karan, MD, MPH, DTM&H, An Internal Medicine Doctor in the Department of Medicine, Brigham & Women's Hospital/ Harvard Medical School. [@AbraarKaran]
"COVID-19: Reopening for Business in a Post-Coronavirus World" by Marsh & McLennan
"Getting your workplace ready for COVID-19," by the World Health Organization [@WHO]