Nonessential employees could still be working from home throughout the month of May — possibly longer — due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But employers need to have a plan in place to help keep employees healthy and productive once they’re finally allowed to reopen the office.
“Even though we don’t know when this is going to be allowed to happen, employers should already be thinking about what they’re going to do once their offices are open,” says David Barron, labor and employment attorney with Cozen O’Conner, a national law firm. “There’s going to be significant changes to the workplace; it won’t go back to the way things were before.”
Barron spoke in a recent interview about best practices for office management, how to address employee anxiety and how the workplace might be different going forward.
When should employers reopen the office?
It depends on the jurisdiction and nature of the job. Employers should be looking to their local health departments and government for guidance on when to return to the office. It’s something politicians are focused on right now, but nothing’s been decided.
What precautions do employers need to take after reopening?
They’ll need to increase sanitation; provide employees with plenty of antibacterial wipes, soap and hand sanitizer. They should make sure employees are taking extra time to clean their workstations, and talk to the building manager about steps their maintenance team is taking.
Even in a white collar environment, workers are probably going to be required to wear masks. You can require them to bring their own, but employers should provide them to help keep everyone healthy — and in case it becomes a requirement to do so.
We’re still going to have issues with people getting sick, so employers will be wrestling with keeping sick employees out of the office. One way they can help with this is by doing temperature checks at the office; it’s legal to require employees to participate because of COVID-19. But you will need to make accommodations for employees who have existing conditions that alter their normal temperature.
What if some employees aren’t comfortable returning to the office yet?
Employers should ask themselves if the employee’s concern is unique or special. There may be health reasons why they don’t want to return to the office. Maybe they have symptoms of COVID-19. They could live with a loved one who has a compromised immune system, or have one themselves. Or they have to stay home and look after children. All of these are good reasons not to return to the office, and employers can’t compel them to. Reasonable accommodations need to be made. If work can be done remotely, then allow them to continue doing so. If that’s not possible, look at your benefits package and see if you can arrange a leave of absence.
It could also be the case that people are just uncomfortable coming back to work, even if none of these scenarios apply. One way to address this is by providing hazard pay: a temporary increase in pay to compensate for putting them at risk.
How do you think the workplace will change after COVID-19?
We’re going to see social distancing affect the way we interact with our coworkers in the office in the foreseeable future. Desks and workstations are going to be spread further apart. There won’t be any morning meetings with 20 people, no group orientations for hiring, no business lunches. The handshake is probably going to be gone for a while. Most companies are going to be restrictive on who comes into the workplace.
We’re also going to see attitudes about coming into the office sick change. Before this happened, many people still came into work when they were feeling ill because of this ingrained feeling that you’ll be perceived as not being serious about your work if you stay home. But that won’t matter if you’re working from home; this experience is going to make employers more open to remote work policies because they’ve seen it works. It could also lead to the realization that they don’t need these expensive office spaces when their entire staff can work from home.