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Six tips for bringing your staff back to the office safely

May 20, 2020 • read

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Six tips for bringing your staff back to the office safely

It’s been a hard adjustment for Canadians to stay at home 24/7. Everyone wants life to return to normal, and employers are keen to see their staff back at the office. Being physically present with your co-workers gives a sense of community, and allows for improved brainstorming and productivity

As businesses reopen, employers need to transition staff back to the office extremely carefully. COVID-19 is a numbers game. If one person in an office is infected, it doesn’t take much for them to spread it to many more people. That’s one of the main concerns around COVID-19 — that it spreads so rapidly. All the hard work we’ve collectively done over the past months to flatten the curve could be for naught. 

Because of this, employees may feel uneasy about this transition. Having flexible options like working from home should be considered if possible. If you need to transition back to the office, follow these guidelines to create a well-rounded strategy, and keep up the positive progress against COVID-19. 

1. Stay in compliance

It’s important to listen to official government regulations at the federal, provincial, and municipal level. Only bring your employees back after emergency orders have been lifted, and people are once again permitted to gather in groups. 

Stay a step ahead of new company policy requirements. Before bringing employees back, create policies around disease testing, hand washing, extended work from home arrangements, and what to do if an employee contracts COVID-19. What if an employee doesn’t feel safe returning to work? What will be your policy on business or personal travel? Answer all these questions upfront, before the situation arises. Consult an employment lawyer to make sure the policies you’re setting are fair and legally sound. 

People might be feeling anxious, or having reservations about trusting your safety measures. HR teams may receive an influx of questions the first few days your office reopens, and they should be prepared to address them.

2. Modify the office

Your office setup probably still reflects the days before coronavirus. Now, you’ll have to make sure that your employees work stations are at least six feet apart. Some offices are even installing plexiglass dividers between desks. 

Make sure that your office is fully stocked with hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, hand soap, and face masks. Mandate that employees wear masks at all times they’re in the office. Latex gloves are not recommended. They can actually increase your chance of infection since they act as another surface for germ particles to adhere to. And, gloves tend to give a false sense of security to the wearers. People might assume they don’t have to wash their hands as often if they’re wearing gloves, which is very much a myth. 

3. Take a staggered approach

If your office doesn’t have enough square footage to safely accommodate your whole staff anymore, bring back employees in waves on a daily or weekly basis. Schedule the engineering team to come to the office Monday, marketing on Tuesday, finance on Wednesday, and so on. Try to avoid having employees share desks. 

If it’s feasible for your organization, poll your staff on their comfort levels. Some teams might volunteer to stay home for a longer term. 

If certain teams are well-suited to working from home, let them continue doing that. For example, it might make no difference to your security team where they work from. Keeping up remote work is a good way to reduce headcount at the office, making physical distancing easier. 

Which teams should you bring back first? If you have teams that require access to in-office equipment then bring them back. Or, do an analysis of how successful each team’s transition to working from home has been. Bring back the teams that have struggled the most first.

Many companies are debating whether it’s reasonable to expect a full return to “normal” operations, even in the distant future.  Some teams might be suited to permanent remote work. You can use this pandemic as a clean slate to decide what working arrangements are really most effective for your organization.

4. Encourage personal hygiene

Hand washing is one of the strongest tools we have against COVID-19. So, require employees to wash their hands constantly. 

  • When they arrive at the office.
  • Before and after eating.
  • After using the restroom.
  • After touching highly-trafficked surfaces like doorknobs. 

Encourage use of hand sanitizer as well. Remember though, sanitizer is no substitute for proper handwashing. Handwashing gets rid of dirt and grime, and kills more germs. 

While your employees will no doubt be happy to see each other, advise them not to tearfully hug. An elbow bump is safer, as is a simple wave or finger pistol. 

5. Manage the transition

COVID-19 has done a number on many people’s mental health. It’s been a big upheaval getting everyone to work from home. Now that people finally feel adjusted to the WFH lifestyle, they’re being asked to go right back to the office, back to their commute, and back to wearing pants without drawstrings. So, be sensitive to what your employees are going through. 

Employees with health conditions or weakened immune systems might feel more anxious about returning to the office. Employees with kids will have to make new childcare plans, which could be complicated and costly. There will be added stress with everyone having to change their daily lives, with no guarantee things will work out. 

Remind your employees about their health and wellness benefits, if applicable. Virtual care can help support your staff by letting them stay home while still getting the care they need. This also helps keep up physical distancing efforts, even after society begins reopening. 

A change management strategy will help you anticipate what challenges your employees might have. Have an open two-way communication channel for your employees to disclose any challenges they’re facing, or ask any questions. This will help turn this transition period into something that strengthens the company culture, rather than undermines it. 

6. Disinfect from top to bottom

Every night after your employees go home, have a cleaning service come in and thoroughly disinfect your office. Some busy offices are even implementing hourly cleaning of high-traffic areas. 

If you want to disinfect the office yourself, grab some latex gloves and a face mask, some bleach or disinfectant solution, and some disposable paper towels. Open the windows so the smell of cleaning product doesn’t become overbearing. Wipe down non-porous surfaces, especially ones that see a lot of traffic like doorknobs, elevator buttons, fridge doors, and banisters. Make sure you don’t spray your disinfectant, as that can further spread virus particles. Mop the floor with bleach and soapy water to finish the cleaning job. 

Going back to the office is likely an exciting prospect for you and your employees. We’re all missing our work friendships, our familiar spaces, and the variety of working somewhere other than our living rooms. It’s important to keep safety top of mind when managing the transition though. Err on the safe side: have teams work from home if they’re able, and invest in safety measures. Your company and your employees will both be protected, and we’ll be one step closer to truly getting back to normal.  

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