how to prepare to return to the office.

After weeks and months of safe distancing measures implemented by both the local government and employers, the number of new COVID-19 cases is finally trending downwards and looking to stabilise.

As social distancing measures are being slowly lifted, people are gradually allowed to leave their homes to perform more activities. However, it will take some time for things to go back to the way they were before COVID-19. In some cases, it may never be the same again.

Employers will need to make permanent adjustments to their workplaces to minimise the spread of not just COVID-19, but also other similar respiratory illnesses such as the seasonal flu.

So as you plan for your employees to return back to office after working from home, you must first make a few adjustments to the office so that they feel safe enough to come back to work.

6 ways how to improve health safety and security in the workplace

1. develop robust healthcare contingency plans

Employers should invest in resources to develop a robust and full-proof healthcare contingency plan. Companies could either engage a third-party professional consultant agency or create an internal taskforce to map potential scenarios and its corresponding response plans to reduce the risk.

Here are some new health and safety measures that you can implement in the office:

  • Ensure all employees have basic health supplies (e.g. thermometer, reusable masks and hand sanitisers)
  • Request all visitors to register their particulars for contact tracing purposes
  • Use contactless equipment to take the temperature of all employees and visitors
  • Frequently distribute a list of the nearest clinics and hospitals where employees can seek professional medical consultation
health and safety measures in the workplace
health and safety measures in the workplace

Employers should also dedicate a room in the office for the purpose of isolating employees who display symptoms associated with respiratory illnesses. The room should be located the farthest away from communal areas and where the rest of your employees are seated. Ensure that none of your employees use this room for meetings, as that would expose more people to viruses.

In the longer term, companies will need to review their corporate insurance plans and healthcare budgets to ensure adequate healthcare coverage for all the staff. This would also include addressing mental health issues that may have arisen from self-isolation or lack of social interactions.

2. maintain high level of sanitation

sanitation best practices
sanitation best practices

As exciting as it sounds, don’t be too eager to let your entire workforce return to the office. Prior to the return, employers should perform a physical audit of the office space to identify high touch point areas. The common areas to look out for are doorknobs, power and office access buttons, as well as coffee machines, water dispensers and refrigerators.

If it is possible, replace all these high touch items with motion activated set-up. If replacing them with contactless alternatives is not possible, install auto-dispensers for hand sanitisers near entrance doors and in meeting rooms so that employees can keep their hands clean after touching a doorknob.

Provide disinfectant wipes for your staff so that they can clean their work desk before they start and after they end work. Advise them to use the disinfectant wipes on commonly held items such as their desk phones, keyboard and mouse.

Employers should also request all their staff to bring their own reusable tumblers and utensils instead of using shared items in the pantry.

3. use digital tools to drive workforce efficiency

At the start of the year, many companies purchased digital tools such as project management software and additional cloud storage space to enable remote working.

However, just like the human being’s impulse to stockpile essential items, these purchases were a reactive response to the pandemic. Employers purchased them so that their employees could continue to work from home and business can continue even as the local government implemented stay home measures. The reasons for these investments may not be aligned with the company’s long-term digital transformation goals.

digital tools and productivity
digital tools and productivity

However, since the investments have already been made, employers should evaluate the outcomes. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Could you properly integrate these new tools to the company’s existing digital infrastructure?
  • Did the tools help improve collaboration and productivity in the teams?
  • Are the issues just teething problems or would they require long-term fixing?
  • Did the tools expose the company to cyber-attacks?
  • If you invest more in these new digital tools, would they meet your digital transformation goals? 

While it sounds cool and exciting, not all investments in technology can benefit the organisation. It all depends if they can help pave the way for you to meet your long-term goals.

From a HR viewpoint, here are some factors to consider whenever you invest in technology. A good tool should:

  • Drive and optimise organisational productivity
  • Improve employee retention rate and reduce attrition
  • Increase collaboration and help build organisational synergy

Therefore, it’s worth taking the extra time to look at the gaps and lapses in your digital infrastructure. If the digital tool cannot resolve the issues that you are facing, nip it in the bud and cut your losses.

However, if the digital tool has the potential to break down barriers and drive better collaboration and productivity, you may want to explore further and increase your investments in that particular area.

4. continue to have regular check-ins

Many people have gotten accustomed to working from home where they have more autonomy with how they want to plan their working hours. Now, employees need to re-familiarise themselves with working at the office.

During the first week, employers can expect a burst of energy from most of their staff, as many will be excited with finally seeing their friends and colleagues after spending a few weeks or months at home. However, some employees may dread the feeling of going back to the office. Working parents or employees who live with elderly parents will need more time to make arrangements for their dependents.

As the team’s manager, you should keep track of your employees’ energy levels, work performance and attentiveness when they return to the office. If you notice anything different, step in to offer support to those who are having a more difficult time adjusting back to the office.

check ins improves performance
check ins improves performance

5. offer more flexibility to your employees

Respiratory illnesses such as COVID-19 can spread very quickly in dense cities as it can be difficult to practise safe distancing in public transport, especially during peak hours.

Stagger your workforce to prevent an office outbreak to your best ability. Spilt the workforce into different teams and make sure that they do not overlap each other. This will limit the number of employees in the office at any one time while maintaining productivity.

scheduling strategies to optimize workforce
scheduling strategies to optimize workforce

Another working arrangement that employers can run in parallel with the split-team arrangement is flexible working hours. Employees should have the option to commute during off-peak hours when the public transport is not as crowded. The peak hours in your city may change if every employer implements this flexible work arrangement, so take note of the new peak hours before you share more details with your workforce.

Companies should also consider that some employees may still prefer to stay home as they either are or live with people who are susceptible to COVID-19. As members of the team are working remotely, the manager should make extra effort to drive collaboration and minimise miscommunication. Some simple actions are to have virtual team meetings on alternate days and use project management trackers to monitor progress and outcomes.

6. constant communication can help earn trust

Employees want to have a say on how they feel about the new measures in the office and be updated on how the business is performing during this pandemic.

communications in the workplace
communications in the workplace

Companies should communicate key business changes and upgrades to the office via a virtual town hall before the actual date of return. These proactive engagements from the management are often appreciated by workers, as it displays a commitment from the company in taking care of their staff.

Some other information to share with the workforce include:

  • Updates to healthcare policies
  • New workforce arrangement and flexible options
  • Reviewing of performance indicators to reflect the current economic climate
  • Changes to seating arrangements

HR professionals can also conduct an online survey to measure employees’ confidence levels in returning to the office. It is also a good avenue for employees to share ideas on how to make the workspace healthier and safer for everyone.

being back in the office

Some may find returning back to work a little risky since COVID-19 has not been entirely eradicated from our environment.

As employers, it is your responsibility to make sure that you are doing everything you can to address your workers’ concerns and help ease this transition as much as possible.

Even though it is a priority to get everyone back into the workplace, it is also important that employees don’t feel like they are being rushed or forced to do so. Creating a healthy work environment can help allay health and security concerns among your employees, and make them feel more secure about returning to the workplace.

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