The Path Forward: A Checklist for Reopening the Workplace

Jun 08, 2020
| The Extensis Team

As state and local governments begin to permit businesses to re-open in the near future, more and more employers will face the task of providing a safe work space for returning employees. However, the workplace of the coming months will not look the same as the workplace left behind in March. As social distancing guidelines remain in place, employers must re-structure many aspects of operations and physical space to ensure employee safety.
To assist employers during these unprecedented times, we launched the Extensis Relief Navigator, a frequently-updated online resource featuring current regulatory updates, relief program information, human resources guidance, and other useful material.
We have also developed a checklist to help employers safely allow staff back into a physical office space or other location-specific facilities.
Use it as your guide as you strategize your organization’s plan for re-opening.

1. Review federal and state laws

As states implement a phased approach to resuming business activities, your sector will determine if and when your business can bring employees back into a physical space. If your business is eligible to re-open, review the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) COVID-19-related guidelines as well as new guidelines stipulated under the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act (EFMLEA) as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). Your HR services partner or legal team can walk you through exactly what these new changes will mean for your business and policies.

2. Implement OSHA and CDC guidelines

Closely review and implement OSHA and CDC guidelines for safety. Pay particular attention to guidelines that may clash with other current HR practices, such as daily temperature checks or saliva testing. While this may be legally authorized, these requirements could conflict with protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar employee protections. Your HR services partner or legal team will help you establish compliant protocols and policies.

3. Develop procedures for every circumstance

Clarify what happens in scenarios with varying outcomes. If an employee’s temperature is just under your permitted threshold, do they return to the workplace or are they asked to stay home? If someone feels they have been exposed to COVID-19 outside of the workplace, what are the procedures for reporting and continuing to work? etc.
Your HR services partner can help you remove the guesswork for your in-house human resources staff or office management and ensure all employees are treated fairly. 

4. Establish a dedicated task force

Siloed decision-making risks generating unintended negative consequences. Assemble a subject matter expert team consisting of risk management, financial, HR, healthcare, executive, and legal advisors who jointly draft your re-opening plan. Each should closely review and revise the plan to avoid potential pitfalls and exposure to risk.

5. Evaluate your facility’s flow of foot traffic

Recall facility traffic and take note of exactly how employees move through the space. Are there ways to limit areas team members are permitted to enter? Do you have spaces that are open to the public? What is the flow of visitor traffic? Where are all the entry and exit points of the building? Who has access?
Establish new written guidelines for how employees, visitors, and customers will flow through the workplace. Institute new cleaning and disinfecting guidelines and be certain to post appropriate signage to ensure social distancing and hygiene protocol.

6. Collaborate with building management

If you share space with other businesses, you will need to work with building management to understand their safety plan and protocols. Ask for a detailed outline describing how building management plans to clean and disinfect common areas and how they anticipate working with tenants to mitigate further risk if someone falls ill.

7. Draft guidelines to control exposure

After reviewing how the space will be used, establish employee conduct guidelines promoting safe practices and encouraging social distancing. This may include: limiting usage of common areas, asking employees to take breaks at their desks, increasing the frequency of cleaning crews, equipping every employee with personal hand sanitizer, marking floors with arrows to control foot traffic patterns, discouraging hand-shaking or sharing of tools, and more.

8. Reevaluate workflow

If your staff has been remotely located over the previous few weeks or months, you have likely already adjusted your workflow accordingly. This should be under constant review and technological enhancement. It is important to continue implementing practices that serve your business, such as virtual meetings, work-from-home configurations, and limitations on travel.
If much of your staff is essential, consider adjusting your operating hours to work in shifts, dividing employees into groups that enter the office only on certain days, adding physical barriers, adjusting your floor plan design, or other changes limiting your staff’s physical contact with others.

9. Remain sensitive to staff concerns

The effects of COVID-19 have been challenging for employee mental health. As parents, guardians, and families have adjusted to remote work while caring for housebound children, there is also a heightened concern over health, restricted recreational spaces, and canceled community events. All of these factors have contributed to increased employee stress, thus elevating the potential for burnout. Encourage staff to utilize appropriate outlets to alleviate anxiety and pressure.

10. Clearly articulate paid time off (PTO) policies

Give your employees space to refresh and recharge. Make sure employees understand that PTO truly means time away from work. Clearly articulate the boundaries they are entitled to when taking PTO, such as not feeling obliged to check in, even if they are still under work-from-home directives. Your HR services partner can assist in updating your written PTO policies in light of new working conditions.

11. Increase communications

Keep your staff members in the loop during every phase of your planning and implementation. This includes digital updates via email, text, video conferencing, or work portal, as well as on-site signs and notices. Use CDC-recommended language for signage in your facilities. If this language doesn’t align with your business, use it as a baseline for more tailored communications.

12. Document new guidelines

As you draft your new “professional distancing” policies, be sure to document everything in written form. A COVID-19-specific handbook will help returning employees adjust to their updated workplace and will streamline new employee onboarding. Review this document regularly and make changes as needed to address real-world implementation.

13. Develop a plan with multiple phases

Re-opening businesses will mimic a “dimmer switch,” meaning stay-at-home orders can be re-imposed at any time if warranted by public safety needs. Therefore, your re-opening policies should feature two-way models with provisions for retraction back into a virtual model at any point. Under such fluid circumstances, employees may be in the office one day and unable to return the next. Implement appropriate technology solutions and create contingency plans taking into account short-notice restrictions on the work environment. Once again, communication will be key.

14. Develop or update your business continuity plan

If your organization doesn’t already have a business continuity plan in place, right now is the time to develop one. Build on lessons learned, so you will not be tasked with reinventing the wheel in the event of another unexpected situation. Your plan should establish protocols for the use of specific tools and resources, ensuring data security, clear PTO and sick leave policies, changes to employee work hours, and other aspects of your productivity affected by dramatic changes to operations. This will not be an overnight project. It’s a detailed action plan your HR services partner can assist you in creating and updating on an ongoing basis. If your business already has a plan in place, now is the time to update it.
As you begin to re-open your facility doors, remember this will be a slow, phased process, not a sudden flip of a switch. Additionally, more challenges may arise as we head into the 2020-21 cold and flu season. Bringing employees back to work presents ongoing obstacles but breaking the process into smaller parts will enable you to take a proactive approach to managing a safer, smoother transition toward your organization’s updated operations.

Review current information on the impact of COVID-19 on human resources using our Relief Navigator. If you need assistance drafting a plan to re-open your workplace, our HR experts are here to help.