When workplaces reopen, employees will return to a new set of guidelines to help continue physical distancing (Getty Images/martin-dm)
Across the country, provincial governments have begun easing restrictions and allowing some businesses to reopen. Employees who have now settled into remote work could soon be slowly phased back into the office.
In British Columbia, for example, Phase 2 of the province’s reopening plan has already begun. WorkSafeBC has released a guide to help employers develop a COVID-19 Safety Plan for the workplace that outlines their policies, guidelines and procedures.
But employers will have to consider changes that make sense in the context of their own workplace, with the goals of operating effectively while protecting employees.
“There needs to be really sound risk assessment, so you can look at all the things you need to be looking at,” says Cissy Pau, principal consultant at Vancouver-based Clear HR Consulting. “Then put measures in place to reduce those risks, whether they are hygiene-related or safety-related or scheduling.”
Here are five best practices for employers to adopt in anticipation of reopening their workplace.
1. CREATE A TASK FORCE AND CONTINGENCY PLAN
Large organizations can establish a dedicated team to prepare and monitor the reopening of the workplace. A group leading the charge can create a response plan to address workplace disruption while ensuring business continuity.
CPA Eitan Dehtiar, a business consultant and volunteer with CPA Canada’s Financial Literacy program, notes that while many companies already have existing plans, they’re probably generic. “The old saying, the generals are always fighting the last battle—you always risk building a plan for what just happened rather than what is happening.”
Organizational leaders need to ensure that any contingency plan is adapted to reflect current scenarios. Dehtiar also adds that it could be a good time to document the best lessons learned over the past few months. For businesses, the transition to going digital has been ad hoc, he says.
“Everybody sort of figured it out in a week, but I think spending some time and documenting those processes is critical.”
2. COMMUNICATE FREQUENTLY
Whether it’s coming from a dedicated task force or a health and safety representative, employers need to communicate their return to work plans and effectively.
“Communication is probably one of the most important things at this point for employers,” says Pau. “There’s a lot of anxiety and employees, and everybody in the community, have been told, stay home, stay away from people. And now we’re being told to come back to work—that anxiety doesn’t just go away.”
She says it becomes important to allay the fears of the staff. And that requires employers to be strong in communicating what the safety measures are going to be in the workplace.
“It could be weekly emails to staff or even daily Zoom calls,” she says. “You want to keep people up-to-date. What are the practices that are going to be put in place to help protect employees from any potential risks or exposure? What’s going to happen to my job, what’s going to be different?”
Pau suggests involving employees in these conversations and the development plans.
3. RETURN SLOWLY
When offices do open back up, many companies will likely take a more measured approach to the speed they welcome back employees. Phased returns could be implemented as a means of risk reduction, with only a portion of the office being present at any given time.
“I think a lot of companies have figured out how to work with a distributed workforce and a remote workforce and how to leverage tools to do that,” says Dehtiar.
This gives employers the ability to consider who must return to work immediately and who may be gradually called back. Your organization might also need an added measure of flexibility towards employees who are at higher risk of severe illness or those with child- or elder-care obligations.
How well a phased return will work will depend on the company, says Pau.
“We have some clients that are saying, you know what, employees are liking being at home and it’s working. And we’re doing really well—we’re able to maintain business at the same levels as before,” she says. “For others, it’s kind of a Band-Aid solution to have people working from home right now. You’re making do, but it’s not effective. It’s not sustainable.
“But we’re still hearing that, if you can, you need to stay home—so that means there are going to be changes, whether you’re not going to have 100 per cent of the people back, or staggered shifts or different start and end times.”
4. MAINTAIN DISTANCING IN THE WORKPLACE
Whether a workplace returns to full staffing or attempts a phased return, employees will return to a set of guidelines to help continue physical distancing.
Working in closer quarters is inevitable in some types of businesses, when considering areas like change rooms or manufacturing lines. Even in an office, challenges arise in places like elevators, kitchens, washrooms, boardrooms and so on.
In Ontario, the provincial government is working with the Public Service Health and Safety Association to provide guidance to workplaces. Among many tips, its COVID-19 guidance for employers document recommends that they evaluate where staff are assigned to work to optimize physical distancing. WorkSafeBC, meanwhile, suggests “creating pods of workers who work together exclusively to minimize the risk of broad transmission throughout the workplace.”
It’s going to be a challenge, Dehtiar admits. “You’re going to look for some kind of office redesign. You’re going to probably need more square feet per person and taller walls. Even just basic things, like do you need a washroom pass, how are you going to use the elevators?”
5. UPDATE POLICIES AND PROCEDURES
In addition to new guidelines concerning physical distancing in the workplace, Pau says there are a variety of other policies that may need updating in your organization.
“Non-essential visitors, non-essential travel, should you be doing it?” she asks.
WorkSafeBC lists a number of policies to help manage your workplace and address any employee illnesses. These include guidance around self-isolation, prohibiting or limiting visitors and having a plan for workers who may start to feel ill while at work, including who they should notify. They also recommend implementing cleaning and hygiene measures, such as a protocol for keeping all common areas and surfaces clean, while providing adequate sanitizer and hand-washing facilities.
MORE COVID-19 UPDATES
Learn about coping with the effects of COVID-19, including survival tips for small businesses as well as how to pivot your business and ensure continuity. Plus, view the free webinar on maximizing your business during and after the pandemic.