With vaccination programs in full swing across the country and Zoom fatigue affecting us all, many businesses are planning a return to the workplace. However, even with a largely vaccinated workforce, businesses must carefully plan the return of their staff and ensure that safety measures remain in place for the foreseeable future.
New variants and mutations of the virus, as well as unvaccinated populations, mean we need to remain vigilant and strike the right balance between safety and normalcy. So it’s within this context that we’ve written these considerations on what businesses should consider when bringing employees back to the workplace during COVID-19.
Before getting into the specific advice below, you should always consult official government guidance when planning a return to the workplace, including:
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) protocols
- CDC guidance for businesses and employers
- Specific state and local laws that apply in your jurisdiction
Communication is Key
With such a focus on practical safety measures, it can be easy to overlook one of the most fundamental aspects of good employee relations: communication. And it’s more important than ever that this communication takes the form of authentic dialogue with staff, rather than top-down announcements. Key points to consider here include:
- Conduct staff consultations: Include staff input during the planning stage by running consultations with employees. There may be trepidation among the workforce about returning to the workplace, or some staff may have specific issues concerning caring responsibilities they’ve had to take on while working from home during the pandemic.
- Provide regular updates: Get on top of rumors and misinformation by providing updates to staff as soon as possible once key decisions are made.
- Request regular feedback: Set up simple surveys and canvas staff feedback after key milestones, such as after you’ve announced the return to the workplace plan, or once staff have returned.
- Get informed consent: If you’re rolling out symptom screening or testing, then you will need to gain informed consent from your employees - done in a HIPAA compliant manner.
- Publish clear guidelines: Employees need to feel comfortable reporting positive diagnoses, in order for your business to contain an outbreak. So publish clear guidelines explaining what to do, what the quarantine policy is, and if there are home working options available.
To Screen, to Monitor Vaccination Status or to Test?
A key decision many businesses will face is whether to symptom screen or test their employees for COVID-19. Symptom screening takes the form of a questionnaire listing symptoms and recent contacts, whereas testing takes the form of PCR or antigen tests that detect the virus.
While most businesses are not required to do either by law, many are choosing to do one or the other as part of their efforts to protect their workforce and maintain optimal business operations. The option you choose will depend on your circumstances.
- The case for symptom screening: Symptom screening tools have a number of shortcomings that limit their effectiveness. First, an infected individual may be symptomless during the initial incubation period, while others will remain asymptomatic throughout. Also, it’s entirely reliant on truthful disclosures from employees. On the other hand, symptom screening is better than doing nothing. Moreover, it can be a cost-effective option for businesses with large workforces and low margins that don’t have the budget for testing.
- The case for vaccination monitoring: The recently-updated CDC guidelines to remove the mask mandate for vaccinated individuals have brought with them a necessity to differentiate between people who have been vaccinated and people who haven’t. Without a HIPAA complaint and customer centric platform, this can be difficult to monitor. As the pandemic moves from epidemic to endemic, it’s becoming increasingly important to monitor your employees’ vaccination status (which vaccine they received, whether they’ve received their first and second shots, when, etc.). By putting in a program to upload vaccine cards, health data and attestments, and recording this information you improve the health and safety of your team, your organizations resilience and mitigate risk.
- The case for testing: High accuracy testing is a far more effective way of identifying infected employees and therefore making a workplace COVID-secure. On-site testing can have a test runtime of as little as 12-minutes meaning tests can be scheduled at the beginning of the workday, before employees enter certain parts of the workplace. Testing is of course more expensive than simple symptom screening but reduces the risk of sidelining your business with sickness, quarantining and missed deadlines. That being said, technology has evolved and prices have dropped considerably as more innovative and accurate options have become available.
Want to find out more about COVID-19 health monitoring and management solutions for your workforce? Explore our workplace solution set here.
Practical Safety Measures
Important practical safety measures that should also form part of your COVID return to the workplace strategy include:
- Designate movement flows: Points to consider include designating separate entrances and exits from the building and designating “up” and “down” staircases. You may also want to impose elevator usage rules to cut down on unnecessary use, such as able-bodied employees being required to take the stairs instead of the elevator for journeys of one or two floors.
- Make alternative arrangements for meetings: Large gatherings in small meeting rooms are best avoided, so leverage larger conference rooms where possible or consider redesigning to a more open concept office layout.
- Place hand sanitizer stations in high touch areas: This includes all entrance/exit doors and internal doors, elevator lobbies, printers, machinery, break rooms, and toilets.
- Assess what PPE staff may require: Staff may require personal protective equipment (PPE), such as employees who chose or could not receive the vaccine or those working in certain roles, for example those in the healthcare industry.
How Long Should These Measures Last?
The question we all want the answer to. Unfortunately, there remain uncertainties when it comes to this pandemic and it’s duration (e.g. how long do vaccines last? how effective are they? What are the long-hauler consequences to individuals, etc.). Until a realistic and comprehensive global strategy is put in place much of the globe will remain a breeding ground for variants which know no borders. Until then AllClear Healthcare believes it just makes sense to make sure.
Therefore, it’s little surprise that major employers such as Google, Goldman Sachs, and Netflix, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG - mandated testing until October 2023), etc., have invested heavily in COVID testing regimens for their people and their organizations resilience and continuity.
As with many things, each organization’s approach will be unique. And AllClear can help you continue to iterate on your approach as you navigate the new normal.