Back to the Workplace in a COVID-19 World: One Possible, Practical Process
We are in the teeth of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many are struggling to make it “one more day.” In these situations, it is tough to think about the “future” when the present is a swamp full of alligators and you’re in the middle of them. But it is instructive to recall the words of Intel’s great CEO, Andy Grove when quizzed about the importance of tactics vs strategy. His response – paraphrased – was,
“That’s a stupid question, you have to do both!”
So in the spirit of doing both, I’ve been talking to people and doing some research on how in the heck we are going to get “Back to the Workplace.” As great as telework may be, we will still need to go back to an office for many good reasons. Will it be as often? Almost certainly not, but we will be going back. So, what might be a way to do that?
Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19
One document that organizational leaders may want to consult is the following publication. It contains some really good guidance about preparing to return to the workplace:
Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19
Department of Labor
Department of Health and Human Services
Publication: OSHA 3990-03 2020
Administrative Control Guidance
The following is an excerpt from the introduction:
To reduce the impact of COVID-19 outbreak conditions on businesses, workers, customers, and the public, it is important for all employers to plan now for COVID-19. For employers who have already planned for influenza pandemics, planning for COVID-19 may involve updating plans to address the specific exposure risks, sources of exposure, routes of transmission, and other unique characteristics of SARS-CoV-2 (i.e., compared to pandemic influenza viruses). Employers who have not prepared for pandemic events should prepare themselves and their workers as far in advance as possible of potentially worsening outbreak conditions. Lack of continuity planning can result in a cascade of failures as employers attempt to address challenges of COVID-19 with insufficient resources and workers who might not be adequately trained for jobs they may have to perform under pandemic conditions. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) developed this COVID-19 planning guidance based on traditional infection prevention and industrial hygiene practices. It focuses on the need for employers to implement engineering, administrative, and work practice controls and personal protective equipment (PPE), as well as considerations for doing so.
Of the four broad categories, Engineering, Administrative, Work Practice Controls, and Personal Protective Equipment, I’ve focused on just one aspect, Administrative controls:
Administrative controls require action by the worker or employer. Typically, administrative controls are changes in work policy or procedures to reduce or minimize exposure to a hazard. Examples of administrative controls for SARS-CoV-2 include:
- Encouraging sick workers to stay at home.
- Minimizing contact among workers, clients, and customers by replacing face-to-face meetings with virtual communications and implementing telework if feasible.
- Establishing alternating days or extra shifts that reduce the total number of employees in a facility at a given time, allowing them to maintain distance from one another while maintaining a full onsite work week.
One Possible Response to “Back to Work”
In order to address the Administrative Control guidance for “Establishing alternating days or extra shifts that reduce the total number of employees in a facility at a given time…,” an organization might do the following:
- Segment the workforce into two or more groups, depending on the physical constraints of the office. If open-plan, there may need to be three or four groups, if mostly enclosed workspaces/office, maybe two. This will reduce the number of people who come into the office on any given day and enhance Physical Distancing.
- Create a schedule for when each group can come into the office – Group 1 on Monday, Group 2 on Tuesday, etc.
- Color-code or mark workspaces to identify which groups they support
- Limit access to other spaces by using a system to ensure each Group’s members can only see the availability and book spaces in their assigned Group spaces.
- Each Group may have an assigned seat or may leverage shared officing like hoteling. In either case, it will be important to know WHO came into the office and WHERE they sat. This information will be used to assist in cleaning/disinfecting, as well as tracing where people sat to have a record of their attendance in the office (Where?, When?, Who else was in?).
- Collaboration Spaces
- Limit the number of people in the room so as to maintain 6 ft Physical Distance
- For smaller rooms like huddle rooms or four-person rooms, these cease to become collaboration space and instead become a workstation for one person.
- Must maintain a record of verified use of the room (not the booking, but if the room was actually used) and who was in the room (attendees) for the same tracing purpose.
- Depending on the space configuration, it may be important to install plexiglass in workplaces to limit transmission from coughing and sneezing
Closing: Protective Goals
In my mind, these guidelines are meant to help any organization’s HR and Facilities personnel to institute a plan and a process to meet four basic Protective Goals:
- Protect Employee Health – The most important thing. None of the other goals are possible if this is not ensured.
- Protect Organizational Financial Health – The organization must stay healthy and stay in business in order to achieve its financial goals.
- Protect Organizational Operating Viability – The Viability of any organization depends on both the health of its employees and its financial success in the marketplace.
- Protect Organizational Liability – Face it, it’s a fact of life and part being in business. If the organization can’t prove, in a systematic way, that it has taken prudent steps and followed published guidance on keeping people healthy, the deserved result will be litigation. When instituting a “process”, an organization must be able to prove that it both has a policy and that it complies with that policy. COVID-19 response processes will be no different. Think Sarbanes-Oxley for compliance with workplace health, viability, and liability.
If you’re in charge of the safe return, check out our back to the workplace page.