Back to work checklist: Making your office safe from COVID-19

by Andy Nguyen
Back to work checklist

With COVID-19 restrictions slowly easing in several parts of the world, many businesses are preparing to welcome employees back into the office. 

However, you first need to ensure your workplace is well-equipped to tackle the several challenges brought by the pandemic. 

And for that, you need a back to work checklist

Creating and implementing a well-thought-out business strategy and a checklist will ensure you’ve considered every challenge and prepared for any possibility. A thorough checklist needs to be detailed, cover fundamental health aspects, and plan for the present as well as the future. 

In this article, we’ll highlight seven key things you need to consider while drafting your back to work checklist and how to manage employees with Covid-19. We’ll also discuss why you need a back to work checklist

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Let’s get started. 

Back to work checklist: 7 key considerations 

As governments start to ease pandemic restrictions, businesses are reopening and resuming their regular operations. 

However, as of August 2021, new Coronavirus variants like the Delta variant are floating around, and employers need to ensure they’re taking proper precautions for everyone’s health and safety. 

While each company’s back to work checklist will be different, you should keep the following seven points in mind while creating yours. 

1. Conduct an employee return survey 

Before you begin constructing your return to work checklist, consider sending out an employee survey.  

The survey will allow employees to express their concerns about returning to work and provide a roadmap for your checklist. 

Some common concerns that may crop up are: 

  • Catching Covid-19 after returning to the office. 
  • Unintentionally infecting at-risk loved ones and children.
  • Hesitation about commuting to work – especially if your employees rely on public transport. 
  • Child care concerns due to potential school and daycare closures. 
  • Increased exposure to strangers. 

However, you can take care of a few of these while drafting your checklist. 

You may have also chosen to furlough (leave without pay) a portion of your workforce to cut costs. These employees may need extra help getting back into the swing of things. 

Understanding their mindset will help you provide a smoother transition. 

2. Rethink your work models 

Chances are, most employees don’t need to return to the office. 

Many may even prefer remote work or telework

You should look at various departments and decide which job functions require employees to be physically present. You may also choose to adopt a hybrid work model to limit infection risk. 

Ensure these decisions are based on job-related necessities and not on subjective criteria such as gender, age, maternity leave, etc. 

Ideally, you should consider the following: 

  • Allow employees to continue working remotely wherever possible. 
  • Consider a staggered return to work, with 20%-30% of the workforce returning first. 
  • Make necessary arrangements to increase collaboration between your onsite and offsite teams. 
  • Examine the long-term advantages of permanent remote work, e.g., cost savings, global workforce, etc. 

Your employees may also have valid questions about why certain employees can telework while others have to return to the office. Document your decision-making process to ensure there’s complete transparency. 

If your business requires the physical presence of most of your employees, make plans to practice social distancing and educate employees about workplace health and safety measures

3. Review existing company policies 

It’s clear by now that the pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon. So, you may need to adjust specific policies to address current Covid 19 issues. 

You can also take this opportunity to create new policies for potential future incidents. 

Some things to consider here are: 

  • Implementing flexible leave policies that give employees the freedom to take paid time off (PTO) according to their needs. 
  • Managing your workforce with staff absences. 
  • Providing flexible working hours, especially for your remote staff. 
  • Specifying the details of a hybrid work model, e.g., which days should employees come into the office.
  • Helping employees commute to work safely, if possible. 
  • Conducting virtual meetings, unless an in-person meeting is absolutely essential. 
  • Changing your hiring practices and utilizing recruitment software. For instance, interviewing candidates through video calls rather than in-office meetings.   
  • Collaborating closely with your HR (Human Resource) and legal departments to quickly fulfill reasonable accommodation requests, e.g., providing PPE, allowing employees to work remotely, etc. 
  • Updating your HR policies to address pandemic-related workplace harassment based on protected characteristics. 
  • Modifying your business travel policies to limit any potential risk. 

A policy overhaul like this may seem daunting, but your company and employees will be better prepared for the future if you address these concerns now. 

Note: Reasonable accommodations are modifications or adjustments employers provide to people with disabilities to encourage equal opportunity employment. 

4. Maintain social distancing 

If any percentage of your staff is coming back to the office, they need to follow basic social distancing measures. 

Some of these are dependent on you and your office layout, while others are about day-to-day behavior. 

A) Physical workspace changes 

  • Examine if your current worksite layout meets social distancing guidelines. If not, consider making appropriate changes before employees enter the office.
  • Consider replacing certain manual equipment with electrical ones, e.g., automatic doors instead of doorknobs. 
  • Place visible six-foot markers to encourage social distancing as per CDC guidance. 
  • Provide barriers, shields, plexiglass, etc., to protect employees from airborne particles. For some employees, these may come under reasonable accommodations. 

B) Employee behavioural changes

  • Discourage communal use of resources such as phones, desks, office equipment, etc. 
  • Modify common areas like breakrooms to avoid crowding. 
  • Consider letting employees take their lunch break at different times.
  • Encourage employees to bring their own meals they can eat at their desks. 
  • Develop specific protocols for elevator use, especially during the start and end of the workday. 

C) Visitor guidelines 

  • Limit non-essential deliveries. 
  • Place strict hygiene protocols for vendors and visitors. 
  • Instruct that deliveries should be left at the doorstep to limit exposure. 

Additionally, you should keep up with the changing workplace safety guidelines put forth by prominent organizations, such as: 

5. Implement health and safety protocols 

To ensure your employees stay safe in the workplace and outside, you should train employees about safety protocols. 

These can include specific workplace safety directives and general guidance. 

Some standard workplace health and safety policies are: 

  • Implementing a temperature check when employees enter. If they have a high fever (100.4°F or higher), you should send them home to recover. 

Disclaimer: some Covid-19 positive individuals might be asymptomatic and not have a fever. 

  • Providing employees a self-assessment form listing Covid-19 symptoms. 
  • Administering viral tests – cheek and nose swabs – if possible.  
  • Providing hand hygiene products such as hand wash, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, etc. 
  • Putting up posters in washrooms and other communal areas demonstrating proper handwashing techniques. 
  • Educating employees about hygiene practices, e.g., no handshaking, wearing face masks, coughing into elbows, washing or sanitizing hands frequently. 
  • Improving office ventilation, if possible.
  • Providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to any worker who frequently interacts with other employees or customers. 
  • Sending sick employees home proactively and without judgment. 
  • Encouraging sick employees to stay at home and recover. 

If you conduct any medical procedures, such as temperature checks, ensure that data remains confidential, in compliance with the American Disabilities Act (ADA)

You should also put safety procedures in place for any employee failing a health screening. For instance, they can receive teleworking accommodations. If they display more symptoms, they can take an extended sick leave. 

Similarly, you should also create a policy for employees who refuse health screenings for privacy or religious reasons. 

6. Provide mental health support services 

The pandemic has led to a global mental health crisis, and returning to work comes with its own anxieties and stresses

HR professionals may want to team up with mental health practitioners to conduct anonymous employee surveys to assess their needs. 

The surveys can help you understand their concerns, what resources they may need, and even how to support them while promoting mental health in the workplace

For instance, a furloughed employee might now have an altered sleep schedule. This employee may need additional assistance as they transition back to work. 

Many employees may be:

  • Requiring to leave work early for specific caretaking needs. 
  • Struggling with school and daycare closures. 
  • Dealing with grief and loss. 
  • Facing financial difficulties. 

You can also train managers and supervisors on how to best handle and support employees with the personal challenges mentioned above. And a good way to do that is through employee wellness programs. 

Doing so will drastically improve employee experience and trust in management. 

Learn more about the long-term benefits of employee wellness programs

7. Integrate best team management practices  

The pandemic will surely end one day. 

But the culture and practices that help you sail through these trying times can help you foster a positive work environment beyond the pandemic too. 

For instance: 

  • Create and maintain open communication lines between employees and management. 
  • Remain aware of any public health crises and be ready to implement required safety protocols. 
  • Incorporate a strict cleaning schedule to safely deal with any Covid 19 hazards, as per OSHA guidance, and continue these cleaning practices.
  • Implement strict anti-harassment or discriminatory HR policies. 
  • Develop an emergency work plan – remote working, communication, health – for the future. 
  • Outline proactive plans in case of another emergency or stay-at-home order, such as:
    • How to continue essential business functions.
    • Cross-training employees. 
    • Flexible remote working and paid leave policies. 
  • Acknowledge your employees’ experiences, concerns, and treat them sensitively. 

You can start by communicating your appreciation, recognizing any risk your employees might be taking by returning to work, and welcoming them back. 

Managing Covid-19 in the workplace 

So, you’ve covered all the main points in your back to work checklist.

But what if an employee shows symptoms or tests positive for Covid-19 after returning to work

Normally, HIPAA (a federal law protecting sensitive healthcare information) would prohibit you as an employer from asking questions about your employees’ health. But the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) allows employers to do so for a short period to limit the spread of Covid-19. 

According to CDC guidelines, if an employee shows symptoms or tests positive for Covid-19, you should immediately isolate them from other employees and visitors. 

You may also ask them to return home to quarantine. 

The CDC recommends following this protocol even when a fully vaccinated employee is exposed to the virus but not showing any symptoms. 

Although the risk of surface transmission is low, you should consider disinfecting any surfaces or objects said employee might have touched. 

While cleaning: 

  • Ensure the person cleaning wears gloves and face coverings. 
  • Open doors and windows to increase ventilation and decrease exposure risk. 

The CDC also recommends notifying other employees so they can take the necessary precautions. However, you should be careful not to reveal the affected employee’s identity under the ADA confidentiality guidelines. 

Employees who have been under self-quarantine can return to work if they meet all the following CDC conditions

  • At least 10 days have passed since the onset of symptoms. 
  • No abnormal fever for at least 24 hours without using fever-reducing medications. 
  • Improvement in other Covid-19 symptoms. 

If the affected employee is immunocompromised, has underlying health conditions, or is severely ill, their self-quarantine may extend up to 20 days. 

After a sickness absence, you can conduct a return to work interview to:

  • Welcome your employee back.
  • Confirm their eligibility for work. 
  • Inquire if they require any accommodations, such as a flexible work schedule.  

Why do you need a back to work checklist? 

As more people get vaccinated, returning to work seems inevitable.

However, going back to old times seems impractical after a year and a half of uncertainty, fear, and remote work

Expectations for both employees and employers have changed drastically during this time. 

Employees are now prioritizing their and their loved ones’ health before their job, especially if they live with children or high-risk individuals. 

A PWC study showed that over 51% of employees cite ‘fear of infection’ as the primary roadblock to returning to the workplace. They’re also asking for better, more stringent safety protocols before reentering the workplace. 

The same study showed over half of surveyed employees want employers to:

  • Provide PPE.
  • Inform them if a colleague tests positive. 
  • Require customers and visitors to follow safety protocols. 

Although employees want to be safe, they don’t want to be tracked. 

They would prefer specific testing procedures, such as temperature checks. At the same time, they’re overwhelmingly concerned about their loss of privacy and employer’s access to medical records. 

As such, the CDC does not recommend antibody testing as they only test for past infections. However, employers can opt for viral tests, like cheek and nose swabs, to check for current infections. 

To ensure your company is ready to reopen, you need to listen to your workers’ concerns and try to mitigate them wherever possible.

Most importantly, you need to remain flexible. With new variants spreading across the world, you may find yourself constantly adjusting certain policies. 

Wrapping up 

The Covid 19 pandemic has changed every aspect of life. Returning to work is a given, but it’s important to do it right. 

While there is no single solution for every company, the back to work checklist we covered above is a good starting point. You should consider your specific location, local rules and regulations, culture, employee survey results, and even budgets when you create your own. 

In the end, a good checklist ensures employee health and safety while also encouraging the return to work.

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