man in face mask

Set the Stage for Success with a Great Return-to-Work Program

With the easing of restrictions surrounding the Covid-19 outbreak, businesses are starting to bring employees back into the workplace. A successful re-entry program will ensure the safety of company personnel and the public, obviate charges of discrimination and invasion of privacy, and avoid actions that inadvertently violate federal, state and local employment laws. Employers should set a positive tone to motivate their personnel in a difficult environment.

orking from home is over. Partly, anyhow. And after weeks of telephone conferencing and video chatting, many workers are doubtless eager to return to their offices. In managing this reverse migration, though, businesses must coordinate a patchwork of safety procedures and work area modifications while communicating effectively with employees.

Maybe the greatest challenge is convincing everyone it’s safe to come back to work. “Many people are still scared, and their fear
is valid,” says Bill Hagaman, CEO and Managing Partner of Withum (withum.com). “The risk of the virus impacting someone at any moment continues to be very real.”

It stands to reason, then, that employers must ensure that no one gets sick by visiting their facilities. But the reasons for doing so go beyond health and morale. Work-related illnesses can spark injury lawsuits, workers compensation claims, or charges the employer failed to provide a safe workplace as defined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). “As employers put in place their return to work programs they must address legal issues concerning the safety of employees, vendors, suppliers, clients, and customers,” says Paul Evans, a partner in the Employment and Compensation Practice Group in Baker & McKenzie’s New York office (bakermckenzie.com).

Cleaning up

Most safety programs will begin with the physical plant. “The business facility must be thoroughly cleaned,” says Richard Avdoian, an employee development consultant in Metropolitan St. Louis. (MidwestBusinessInstitute.com). “Attention must be paid especially to the common areas, restrooms, chairs and desks. Sanitizing gels should be made available throughout.”

Some employers may need to retool their entire workplace footprint. “Companies with an open model concept will have to consider whether it needs to be modified,” says Bob Gregg, Co-chair of the Employment Practice Law Group at Boardman and Clark LLC, Madison, WI (boardmanclark.com). “People will not want to sit out in the open with others sneezing.” Workstations can be spread apart to the requisite six feet of separation. Plexiglass barriers can be installed where appropriate.

Businesses may need to modify long-standing work procedures. A single serve machine might replace a group coffee maker. Conference room chairs might be removed so people can sit far enough from one another. Hallways might be turned into one-way corridors. And the job of turning on the lights might be assigned to one person.

Signs posted throughout the facility can remind everyone to maintain proper social distancing, keep washing their hands and wear their masks.
“Employers should ensure their workers refrain from unnecessary touching or congregating in cafeterias and conference rooms,”says Susan Gross Sholinsky, Vice Chair of the Employment, Labor & Workforce Management practice of Epstein, Becker Green in New York (ebglaw.com).
In deciding what to do and not to do with their workplaces, businesses can obtain guidance from the government. Local and state authorities are issuing discretionary guidelines and mandatory directives. Some are very detailed, limiting the number of people permitted in a workspace, for example, to 25 percent or 50 percent of a room’s normal capacity. At the federal level, several agencies are issuing return to work advisories ranging from social distancing to the ventilation of workspaces to health screenings for employees. (For links to these agencies see the Sidebar, “Government Resources for Re-Opening.”)

Taking temperatures

Federal and state authorities are also offering advice on a popular method for reducing the risk of infection: taking the temperatures of arriving employees. “The prevailing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is that any temperature above 100.4 degrees warrants sending the employee home for the day,” says Evans. “If the temperature is above normal, but below 100.4 degrees, then the guideline is to wait 15 minutes and take the temperature again to see if it goes up above 100.4.”

Advisories are also available from local and state authorities at various levels of detail. “Temperature checks may be more important in hot spots than elsewhere,” says Evans.

Health procedures of any kind can pose legal issues. “Taking temperatures as people come into the workplace starts to raise wage and hour questions if people must stand in line,” says Gregg. “Employers need to ask, ‘How many minutes are workers standing?’ And ‘Should they be paid for those minutes?’”
Privacy issues may also arise. “What do you do if a person has a fever?” poses Gregg. “How do you respond in a way which does not single them out? You don’t want a gong to go off or to let others see you shuttle them to a holding pen. You want to handle things in a way that does not violate privacy.”

If doorway health inspections help boost morale, employers should realize they are not sure things. “An individual can be infected with Covid-19 without having a fever,” says Evans. “However, the medical community still seems to think of temperature checks as important tools for ensuring workplace safety.”

Gradual returns

No safety plan can succeed if too many people crowd into the office, placing themselves and others at risk. Many businesses are moderating the flow of arrivals by bringing back people in stages, even going so far as to require eager volunteers to obtain clearance from their supervisors before returning. Others are separating their staffs into two or more teams and allowing one group in the office at a time.

“Employers should consider the feasibility of staggering employees’ shift times or of establishing an alternating workday or workweek schedule,”
says Sholinsky. “They should be flexible and creative in developing policies that maximize productivity and ensure the highest levels of safety.”

If some employees are too eager to return, others will be fearful of doing so too quickly. Allowing those individuals to continue to work remotely may help obviate safety risks. “If your business is set up for some employees to work from home, then consider allowing them to continue to do so,” says Hagaman. “Give special thought to parents of school-aged children in states where schools have shut down for the remainder of the year. Remote working capabilities can also protect employees who take public transportation to work by limiting their exposure.”

A positive tone

Creating a safe workplace is one thing. Building the trust of employees is another. People must understand that everything possible has been done to protect their health and safety.

“Transparent communication is critical right now,” says Hagaman.

“Employers need to prevent confusion among their teams by answering their questions before they re-enter the workplace.”

Hagaman suggests addressing these questions: How will you assess the health of your employees prior to walking into the building? Where will your employees find supplies such as face masks and sanitizing wipes? What parts of their workspace will be closed? Will conference rooms and cafeterias remain open? And who will be allowed in the building, and when?

Not the least of challenges is that of communicating the panoply of new procedures to employees who may feel overwhelmed by a long list of to-dos and do-nots. Some employers are sending email broadcasts with answers to such questions. Others are posting informative signs in the workplaces. And others are packing personal protective gear into “goody bags” and handing them out to returning employees.

All such steps can calm fears. And given the negative emotions that have surrounded the Covid-19 outbreak, employers should try to present their communications in a forward-looking spirit.

“As people start re-entering the workplace employers might create a return-to-work rally with a positive tone, applauding the performance of the staff in light of everything that has happened,” says Avdoian. “And as things move forward one way to encourage good morale is to ask for volunteers to serve on a committee that addresses staff concerns.”

The pandemic itself might present businesses with the opportunity to retool their operations, finding ways to work more productively and to utilize technology more efficiently. “We should create new policies and procedures in response to the pandemic as we do when faced with any obstacle or challenge in the business world,” says Avdoian. “We are always looking for ways to enhance our services. This is another opportunity to do so.”


Phillip M. Perry is an award-winning business journalist based in New York City. He covers management, employment law, finance and marketing for scores of business magazines.