Returning to the office: How to protect your team

From practices to protect employees to new workplace safety regulations and planning for a potential new wave of COVID-19, Allstream talks to the experts in an online roundtable about how to safely make the transition from WFH back to the office.

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Returning to the office during COVID-19

While pajama bottoms and slippers have become the new business casual, we’re now starting to think about returning to the office—and grappling with everything from legal issues to infection control (and, of course, switching from pajama bottoms to pants).

In an online roundtable hosted by Allstream, leadership consultant Elaine Adamson and attorney Megan Crowhurst talk with Paula Wiley, Allstream’s director of HR, about people management and legal recommendations during this transition.

Returning to the office will occur in four stages—and the first stage is assessment. Many businesses (including Allstream) have been well positioned to ride out the WFH wave with cloud-based technologies and communication tools.

But now that there’s talk of returning to the office, what should leaders and managers consider before making the move? After all, it’s not as simple as unlocking the doors and returning to business as usual.

Assessing the risks

Answering that question touches on some basic psychology, says Elaine Adamson, leadership consultant with Dots Leadership Solutions in Mississauga, Ont., who has more than 25 years of human resources expertise. The goal, she says, is “to reduce friction and drama and mitigate people’s concerns early.”

She points to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, with three key levels: basic, physiological and self-fulfillment. “Before you can actually bring people back from their home where they feel safe, let alone contemplate being productive in the workplace—which is really at that physiological level—you have to focus on health and safety aspects at work first.”

So it’s not just about timing or which locations will open first, says Adamson, but how you will keep people safe.

That starts with assessing any gaps. Look at your team, facilities and processes from a health and safety lens; you might need extra support for those with underlying health conditions or at greater risk of exposure. Determine who should be phased back first—and “let them know how you’re planning to keep them safe when they do.”

From a legal perspective, when you have a business operating in multiple countries, across North America or among different states or provinces, “the government orders coming out oftentimes are conflicting and it’s hard to know what the guidance is right now,” says Megan Crowhurst, attorney at the Bullard Law employment law firm in Portland. “Not only is it conflicting, but it’s changing regularly.”

Crowhurst recommends designating an employee to monitor government websites regularly—even on a daily basis—to see what new information is coming out.

Deploying workers back to the office

Disinfecting the workspace when returning to the office during COVID

The second phase is deployment. “When we move through change of any sort, we move through a transition process, and we go from what’s familiar to us to acceptance of something new—and some people get there faster than others,” says Adamson.

“We each ride an emotional roller coaster when it comes to change; it’s like the grief cycle,” she adds. “Each person might be at a different spot, including you as a leader.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened people’s emotional response, so you’re bound to see some resistance from employees, especially when transitioning back to the office.

To alleviate any concerns, you’ll need to communicate clearly and regularly “to ensure people understand why they are the ones being selected to return and what will be different,” says Adamson.

That includes any new safety practices, such as reducing exposure to other employees (by staggering or rotating work schedules, for example) or eliminating non-essential meetings.

Adamson suggests continuing to host video conferences even while employees are in the office, “which sounds odd, but that’s an important consideration,” she says. “You can use effective tools like Webex right in the office.” In some spaces, you might have to augment seating arrangements, install plexiglass barriers or make PPE available.

To test or not to test

So should employees be tested for COVID-19 before they return? Crowhurst recommends starting with a pre-screening process to find out if any employees have tested positive for the virus, sought medical treatment for COVID-related symptoms or been in contact with anyone who has tested positive.

This should be conducted in a way that ensures employees’ privacy. “The guidance right now is not to be probing into any other health conditions beyond COVID,” says Crowhurst. “However, employees may volunteer they have an underlying health condition as a reason why they’re reluctant to come back to work or need a reasonable accommodation.”

While an employer is permitted to do temperature checks, the procedure is somewhat invasive, so it should be done in a private setting. But it’s probably unrealistic and impractical to ask all employees to be tested before they come back to work, says Crowhurst, “but it is permissible to require an employee to get a test if they’re exhibiting symptoms.”

If an employee has tested positive for the virus, an employer can require a medical release form in order to return to work, because with COVID “people do tend to feel better before they deteriorate.”

Business continuity planning

The third stage of returning to the office requires updating your practices and policies, and ensuring that employees understand what compliance means in their respective jurisdiction (such as mandatory face coverings). The final stage is business continuity—which is particularly important in case we see a second wave of COVID-19.

And now is the time to reflect on lessons learned so you’re prepared if a second wave does occur. “You don’t need another pandemic to figure this one out,” says Adamson. “Now is the time to look at what should a business continuity plan look like, build into it any risk assessment tailored to your specific business and map your specific risk exposure.”

But, she adds, it doesn’t all have to be negative. Look where opportunities might exist for your business to innovate or employees to upskill during this time.

For more tips on returning to the office, watch Allstream’s on-demand webinar and download the Business Readiness Assessment, designed in conjunction with Dots Leadership Solutions and Bullard Law, to assist with your transition. For more on how to manage during a crisis, download practical tips on Management During Crisis.

Images: valentinrussanov/iStock

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