Returning to Work After COVID-19: The New Normal

By: Bill Eller

As many states slowly begin to re-open, lifting stay-at-home orders and allowing businesses to begin operating again, we’re faced with a “new normal.” In this new normal, every other table at a restaurant is empty, and our hairdresser wears gloves, a face shield and smock to cut our hair. Our normal will be very different than before for an unknown length of time.

As you consider re-opening your own facilities and bringing people back from a long-term work at home scenario, you’re faced with the responsibility to keep your employees and visitors safe. This will mean policy and procedure changes and re-configuring office and break spaces – a new normal as we’re returning to work.

As municipal leaders, you’ll need to put together a team, drawing on those with expertise across a wide range of disciplines, to plan out how to address safety and follow any orders currently in place as your staff prepares to return. Caution is key; don’t put employees at risk with hasty or ill-considered preparations, because you may be opening yourself up to legal liabilities.

We’ve put together a list of tips and advice for adjusting to this new normal.

Allow those who most need to be at your facility begin returning to work first. There are some jobs that aren’t suited to working at home, while others may remain remote indefinitely. You also may want to allow those employees who are at higher risk or who live in the same household with someone at risk to work from home for the time being. You may also want to consider staggering work shifts or the work week to have as few people in the facility as possible.

Before you re-open, clean the workplace deeply and thoroughly. Afterward, you will want to continue deep cleaning on a regular basis and regularly clean often-touched surfaces, such as door handles, elevator buttons, keyboard, phones and communal coffeepots and refrigerators.

If a building has been idle, you should completely flush the system, from toilets to hose bibs, for 10 minutes to half an hour. Each faucet, showerhead, hose bib or other outlet should be flushed individually, as well, and water filters replaced. Flushing the system will prevent illness from stale water.

Employees who commute using public transit may have been adversely impacted by reduced schedules or simply reluctant to use public transit, because they may be exposed to the virus. You may want to offer a temporary commuting stipend so they can hire private transit, such as a rideshare.

Reconfigure your workspace for social distancing before returning to work. This may mean only every other desk is used or putting down floor markings to remind employees to stay six feet from one another. Kitchens and break areas also should be considered, and you may want to either limit the number of employees allowed in those areas or close them altogether.

Remind employees of hygiene and provide them supplies to keep their workstations clean. We should all avoid touching our faces, sneeze and cough into a tissue or our elbow and wash our hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol for 20 seconds. While everyone should know this, a friendly email or signage will reinforce the message. Make sure your employees have the supplies they need to clean frequently touched surfaces and wash their hands.

Limit in-person meetings and visits to your facility. If a phone call, video conference or email will do, avoid holding an in-person meeting. Visitors should be carefully considered – again, if business can be handled remotely, do that instead. You also may want to check visitors’ temperatures and inquire whether they have symptoms before admitting them to your facility.

Monitor employees’ health. As your employees begin returning to work, consider taking their temperatures daily, especially in settings where employees are forced to work in close proximity. Monitor employees for COVID-19 symptoms and send symptomatic employees home. Additionally, you may want to temporarily waive any requirements for a note from a doctor for sick days. It’s difficult to get into a doctor’s office now, and you don’t want your employees in an overwhelmed emergency room where they likely will be exposed to the virus. If they can’t obtain the required note, they may come in sick.

If an employee becomes sick with COVID-19, you must inform all other employees who may have come into contact with them while maintaining the sick employee’s privacy. Consider making your sick leave policy more flexible, or at least, nonpunitive, because employees with COVID-19 will have to recover and quarantine.

Many of your employees may become sick or be unable to return because of childcare concerns. Likewise, if a second wave of the virus hits, you may have to send your employees home again. Have a Plan B for how you’ll maintain operations if your workforce is ravaged by COVID-19 or work from home becomes necessary again.

It will be difficult to adjust to a new normal, but it’s something we’ll become accustomed to, just as we have stay-at-home orders. The most important objective is to safeguard the health of your employees.