Series authors: Mark Hoffman and Milena Maneva
Previous article: Return-to-Office: Sample Return-to-Office Protocol
This is the final installment of our five-part series on Return-to-Office.
Milena and I want to thank you for following our series and offer a special thanks to those of you who joined our webinar. In this final segment, we would like to address a few important questions that came up in our webinar.
There are two important things that should be noted at the onset:
- This is not legal advice. You should check with your own legal counsel to make sure you are addressing these issues appropriately for your organization.
- Situations change and your approach will need to be flexible according to the circumstances. As new information comes forth, or new guidelines are issued, you may need to take a different approach.
Question 1: Please address employer liability.
It is clearly understood that employers have an obligation to take reasonable care to maintain a safe and healthy workplace. Reasonable care requirements could evolve over time – but following established health and safety guidelines will go a long way. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires that employers provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” In the context of COVID-19, OSHA is advising employers to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by taking temperatures, providing personal protective equipment, adding barriers, social distancing, sanitizing surfaces, etc. Employers need to take every precaution. Particular focus should be on ensuring the cleanliness of the workplace, developing and enforcing policies for self-isolation, and working to make sure that these rules of engagement are communicated effectively and monitored closely.
It is important to remember that employees have the right to refuse work if the workplace is truly unsafe. The overall health and safety of the workplace will be under scrutiny as anxious employees return to the office. Some may look for a reason to avoid being there. Providing a clean environment with clearly communicated protocols for keeping people safe will position your organization well if an ‘unsafe workplace’ complaint is filed.
In addition to implementing good sanitation and monitoring protocols, be sure to provide a channel of communication that allows employees to express their concerns without fear of reprisal. It is possible that someone working in the day-to-day operation may have a better idea regarding physical distancing, sanitation, or other requirements. Encourage open communication and seriously review all complaints and concerns.
Many organizations are delaying their return to the office over concerns of liability – particularly if their employees were to get sick in the workplace. It is important to note that yes, you could be sued. Amazon was sued recently. They were accused of fostering a work environment in which employees “were explicitly or implicitly encouraged to continue attending work and were prevented from adequately washing their hands or sanitizing their workstations.” The suit also claims that Amazon led workers to avoid social distancing and other safety measures in order to keep up with the surging demand and that the company took a lax approach in trying to determine if anyone came in contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19.
Addressing legal matters is often challenging and unique to each organization and region therefore it is best to consult your legal and privacy specialists. There are plenty of great tools online which can help you ask the right questions. If you can demonstrate that you have the proper precautions and policies in place – that will go a long way.
Question 2: What kind of strategies would you recommend addressing not only a safe return-to-office, but also address planning for additional pandemic waves?
As far as a safe return to office, employers can take an “A, B, C” Approach:
A – ASSESS the environment. In article #1, Milena and I recommend a COVID-19 Risk Assessment to determine what needs to be done to make the environment safe. This assessment should be specific to the exposure of the coronavirus. It should be done with the understanding that employers have a responsibility to provide a safe work environment and that employees will have a higher than normal degree of anxiety about coming back to the office.
B – Understand your BUSINESS requirements. You must decide to what degree your operation needs to return to pre-COVID-19 levels. Do you need the workplace to look like it did in 2019? Or, have you learned that your critical business functions can be sustained with much of your workforce working remotely? Before you begin laying out your Return-to-Office plan, you must decide what the office and workforce will look like in the “new normal”.
A similar assessment was recently completed with a client. We determined what pain points they are experiencing, what works well in the new work arrangement and how sustainable it is. We discussed the specific problems they would solve by bringing people back to the office and how many people they would need.
Business leaders may feel pressured to get their people back in the office, but if the current arrangement is working, why rush it?
C – COMMUNICATE. It is particularly important that your communication plan explains the rules clearly. Explain what steps you’ve taken and what is expected of employees. Discuss your protocols for cleaning, personal protective equipment, and day-to-day activities. See article 4 – our sample return to office protocol for more on this. Make it clear to everyone that you will be monitoring the results. Explain that if cases increase in the region or workplace, or if local government regulations change, you may back out of the return-to-office protocol and go back to a more isolated approach.
While you are executing your return-to-office, you should expect a second wave of the virus. Use this time to assess the difficulties you experienced in the first wave and where possible – make improvements or other arrangements to improve the situation the next time.
Question 3: What are the biggest challenges organizations will face when returning to the office?
Every organization will face their own, unique challenges. A company whose employee base doesn’t have much of a community spirit and focuses more on their own selfish behaviors will have different challenges than one that is working collectively to take care of each other. This will also vary by region and industry. But there are a few common struggles that a majority of organizations will face.
- Employee anxiety and mental health. Many of us have been exclusively working from home for weeks or even months. There are some who cannot wait to get back to the office and to interact with their co-workers. But not everyone shares that point of view. Some have concerns about using public transit. Others are concerned about increased exposure to COVID-19 by being in the office. Still others have stress and anxiety due to child-care or family responsibilities. This will be a difficult transition for many. Employers need to be aware of this and take necessary steps to support anxious employees.
- COVID Fatigue. Society is full of examples of people who are simply fed up with isolation and social distancing requirements. Many are (for some inexplicable reason) dead-set against wearing a mask. These factors will come into play as you execute your Return-to-Office protocol. Enforcement of the protocol will be a challenge. However, given the employer’s responsibility to provide a safe and healthy workforce, participation in company policy cannot be optional.
- Gray areas. It was fairly easy to know what to do during lockdown. We kept people home and isolated. But as things reopen, we need to adhere to a strict set of principles which can be applied to evolving circumstances. Follow public health and government guidelines. Establish a protocol and follow it.
Questions abound. Many of us are still in uncharted waters and we believe the navigation only gets more difficult as we work to return to some sense of normal.
Milena and I want to thank you for your questions, and we encourage you to keep asking! Just because our five-part series has come to an end, doesn’t mean the conversations stops. We both have contact information in our bios below and we would love to hear from you.
Above all, stay safe and be well.
Return-to-Office Five-part Series
- Return-to-Office: Considerations
- Return-to-Office: Protecting Your People
- Return-to-Office: Preparing the Environment
- Sample Return-to-Office Protocol
- Return-to-Office Q&A
About Mark Hoffman – Author | Speaker | MBCI, CBCP
Mark is an independent senior crisis management and business continuity consultant. He is the founder and president of a boutique consulting firm that has been serving customers in North America, Europe, and the Caribbean for twenty years. Mark has successfully designed, deployed, and managed BCM and Crisis Management Programs for organizations in the financial, transportation, utility, insurance, risk management and real estate industries. Mark specializes in Program Development / Governance and Crisis / Cyber Management Planning. He is quick to build relationships and achieve results working collaboratively with business leaders and executives. Mark is a frequent contributor to blogs, podcasts, and webinars on the topic of crisis management, cyber response, and business continuity. Feel free to contact Mark to see how he can help your organization be well prepared: [email protected], on Twitter @mhoffman_cbcp or search for Mark on LinkedIn.
About Milena Maneva, MSc | AMBCI
Milena holds a master’s degree in Risk Management with over ten years of risk management experience and is a certified as an Associate Member of the Business Continuity Institute (BCI) – she is currently working towards her MBCI application. Milena is active member and supporter of the Women in Resilience group in the UK. Raised in close proximity to a nuclear power plant, Milena became aware of the value of monthly drills as a child. Those early experiences shaped her into the industry leader she is today. She is a Business Continuity Management Lead for EMEA in a global financial services firm, looking after the business continuity and incident management for +40 offices, +6000 staff. She plays an influential role in the continuous improvement of her company’s global business resilience strategy and operations. You can contact Milena via https://linkedin.com/in/milenamaneva