Living & Thriving in a Pandemic: How to Manage a Safe Return to Work

Danny Shields, Contributor

Most would agree we’re living in a new world during a global pandemic, which means things we’ve never worried about are now front and center in our minds. Maintaining workers’ health and safety has never been more critical if we want to survive and thrive going forward. New requirements with a short- and long-term perspectives are needed to protect both workers and the companies that employ them.

Careful thinking, along with planning, can help companies mitigate risk to employees, contractors and suppliers. Short-term issues to consider range from ensuring workers’ physical safety to managing buildings and other facilities. From a long-term perspective, protecting your overall supply chain from risk also is critical. For now, we’ll address the short-term challenges and requirements.

When Workers Come Back

Before you have employees come back to the facility, form a return to work planning team which includes representatives from all departments. The planning team should meet frequently, perhaps weekly at first, to create safety plans—and to evaluate and communicate successes. By having wide representation, each department team member can discuss specific needs for their work areas, including interactions with each other, equipment and products. HR should be a part of this team to verify that no HIPAA or other legal issues are violated.

Six essentials groups of tasks should be completed before the first employee comes to work at your facility:

  • Getting the physical site ready for the return to work

This requires some planning, because it includes such things as a full-building deep cleaning; development and codification of a new cleaning plan; inspections of the site before return; as well as full checks of all site mechanical systems. Companies need workers to feel safe in their workplace, and a detailed plan for maintaining the facility will build their confidence in returning to work.

  • Prepare your workers

Workers may have questions before returning to work, such as who is returning, the facility cleaning plan and others. Be prepared to answer these questions with well-thought-out responses.

  • Create and communicate business access protocols

Before re-opening, determine who will have access to your workplace, including protocols for visitors, shipping and receiving. Communicate these protocols frequently.

  • Social distancing remains important

We continue to learn valuable information about COVID-19 every day. Social distancing is one tactic we know that helps create a safer workplace and reduces the transmission of the virus. Critical considerations about social distancing include finding ways to safely, yet efficiently, reduce worker density; how to plan schedules to make sure the necessary work gets accomplished; and how to re-engineer office traffic patterns. Simply adjusting work schedules can help reduce illness by minimizing crowded common areas.

  • Maintaining cleanliness

The focus should be on achieving and maintaining as clean a working environment as possible, including thinking through the best plan, based on factors like employee density and schedules. Other considerations include high touchpoints like doors, window handles, kitchen and desk items.

  • Transparent Communication is Paramount

Changing situations can be frightening, so communicating frequently and transparently is a critical element of managing the main return-to-work processes. Putting in the time and effort to provide all relevant knowledge can make it a more comfortable return. It’s a long-term effort—communicate regularly with employees, contractors and suppliers.

In the Long-Term: Protecting the Supply Chain

Protecting the safety of the supply chain must be a parallel process in returning employees and others to work. During the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was apparent supply chains were under significant pressure—many food and daily life essentials were unavailable. No question: This damaged many businesses.

During and post-pandemic, supply chain risk-management strategies must include assessing every aspect of the supply chain in a risk-based evaluation. Identify mutual dependency fears and understand supplier dependencies one level down. Check the status of these suppliers to your suppliers—are they ready for a catastrophe? Do the work to find back-up supplier relationships, just in case your first-line suppliers are unable to provide support.

Business continuity planning also is vital to adjust to the continuous changes likely to be required in the post-pandemic business world. Creating a thoughtfully planned crisis playbook will help your business respond quickly and appropriately. These business continuity plans can be updated as needed.

Be Prepared

It all boils down to having the willingness to adopt a preparedness mentality, so you and your business can survive an emergency. Don’t get caught out in the rain. IHW

Danny Shields is Vice President of Industry Relations at Avetta.