‘New Normal’ of the Reopened Workplace

These days, we’re hearing a lot about restarting the economy, which involves allowing businesses that were required to close during this ongoing public health emergency to reopen and permitting nonessential workers to return to work. While this sounds great in theory, as we’re all eager to get back to “normal,” this isn’t a situation where doors can immediately be flung open and employees can return to work with open arms. Instead, there are many practical implications that employers should start thinking about now to prepare for reopening the workplace and to create a safe environment once employees return. Here are a few things to consider doing:

Think about the physical act of returning to work. Once the state and local directives are lifted, who is actually going to return to the workplace, and when? Think about the employees who need to be physically present in the workplace to do their jobs, and consider returning employees to the workplace in waves, potentially prioritizing those who must be physically present. Consider which employees can telework without affecting productivity to cut down on the number of employees in the workplace. Look at the hours employees typically work — can/should any changes to schedules or work times be made? For example, this could involve having different groups of employees in the office on different days.

Plan for keeping the workplace safe once employees and customers return. Employers need to be proactive to mitigate the risk of exposing employees to infection and creating a second wave of COVID-19 cases once workplaces resume or expand operations. Regardless of which employees return to work and how often, you’ll want to develop and be prepared to enforce social distancing plans and other preventive measures. Look at whether you should make any physical modifications to the workplace, such as repositioning desks, creating additional space between cubicles, or closing conference rooms. And take this opportunity to stock up on proper supplies, such as masks (if you’re providing them to employees) and cleaning supplies, and to ensure you’re up to speed on the most current Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines for the workplace.

Begin putting together communications to employees. As much as we all want to return to business as usual, that isn’t the reality we’re facing right now. Employees need to understand this isn’t a return to the workplace as it looked and operated prior to the pandemic — there will be changes. Start working on your messaging about how the return-to-work process is going to go as well as your expectations for employees. If your workplace typically had visitors, start thinking about whether visitors will be allowed and, if so, what your expectations are for them.

Look back to plan for what’s ahead. Before the stay-at-home orders were put into effect, we were all reacting to what was happening in the moment. Reflect on your processes and how they’ll need to change when employees return to work. For example, you should ensure there’s a solid procedure for tracking and reporting illness as well as a plan for reporting workplace safety issues, such as a co-worker who isn’t practicing social distancing. Consider whether any of your leave policies need to be temporarily revised to allow, for example, for child care difficulties if child care facilities are still closed. And take this opportunity to make sure your process for employees to request accommodations is working and that it’s clear who is responsible for engaging in the interactive process with employees.

With the stay-at-home directives starting to be lifted, we have the chance now to be proactive rather than reactive. Start planning for the impending return to work so you can do your part to keep the workplace safe once employees do return.

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