As vaccination rates increase and COVID infections wane, it is tempting to celebrate a “return to normal” with the reopening of workplaces. But, in reality, the situation is much more complex–especially when considering ⅔ of workers still worry about their health and safety as offices open to on-site employees.
As an agency owner and employer, you must take these concerns seriously. This era is one for flexibility, not strong-handed employer tactics. You must consider your employees but also assess your office safety protocols. Here is a guide to creating a safe post-COVID workplace.
Check For Building Hazards
According to the CDC, three significant hazards are arising from unoccupied buildings:
- Rodents and pests
Do not assume your building is free of these dangers just because it stayed clean while unoccupied. Food left in desks or vending machines attracts rodents and insects. Mold grows from dormant HVAC systems, leaking water coolers, or even that bottled water stash maintained by your employees. Toilets and sinks that run less often create stagnant water that attracts bacterial infections, including Legionnaires’ Disease.
Before allowing employees back in the office, schedule an inspection of your office building for pests, mold, and water issues. If the examination reveals leaks, mold, and rodents, take care of those issues before workers return. For example, flush out plumbing systems and consider replacing or deep cleaning water coolers and ice machines.
Check your HVAC system, especially if it has been on standby or used less often. You want to restore heating and cooling, but also ventilation. If you need mold remediation after lockdown, clean the ducts and ensure no remaining mold spores in your building or office. Recirculating moldy or dusty air can make office workers sick and lead to workers’ compensation claims.
Even if you didn’t face any building condition issues, consider hiring an HVAC contractor to inspect your heating, cooling, and ventilation systems. This approach will ensure worker safety and offer you peace of mind.
Besides your HVAC system, see where you can circulate outdoor air. Open windows or doors where possible. However, also be wary of any outdoor contaminants like carbon monoxide or pollen, especially if any employees have respiratory sensitivities. Install fans if it is impossible to maintain constant outdoor airflow.
Remember, “normal” is not guaranteed. Not everyone can receive the vaccine. Workers may also go home to someone who cannot accept the vaccination, including immune-compromised family members and children under 12.
Start by providing hand sanitizer in high-traffic areas (like break rooms). Set up common areas, meeting rooms, and waiting areas so people can maintain a six-foot distance from one another. Continue requiring masks during crowded meetings and other events where physical distancing is impossible. It is also reasonable to need guests and clients to wear masks.
If employees report COVID symptoms, allow them to return home or use a face mask if they must finish one last project before leaving. Maintain a supply of disposable masks in case an employee or guest doesn’t have one. After sending an employee home, do not allow them to return to the office unless their healthcare provider authorizes it.
Finally, continue cleaning and disinfection routines. If you have a regular cleaning crew, see if they can visit every night after closing and disinfect all surfaces and every workspace.
Provide Vaccination Incentives
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released an opinion regarding employer vaccine requirements. While technically, you may require employees to vaccinate, you still risk facing discrimination claims under the Americans with Disabilities and Rehabilitation Act (ADA).
Anti-discrimination laws require that you accommodate employees who cannot vaccinate due to disability or religious beliefs. Possible accommodations can include:
- Continuing remote work arrangements
- Requiring face masks for unvaccinated people
- Adjusting shifts, so the accommodated worker is around fewer people
- Requiring periodic COVID tests
For those who can receive a vaccine, you can provide incentives. Offering gift cards and movie tickets for vaccination proof are common incentives that prove successful. However, if you decide to skip the perks, and simply require vaccination, make sure you accommodate those who cannot receive the shot. There are already predictions that vaccine requirements may encourage a wave of employment discrimination lawsuits, so tread carefully in this area.
Embrace the New Normal
Flexibility will be critical, or you may join employers who cannot find people to fill open positions. The pandemic changed the future of work permanently. As stated above, office workers remain concerned about returning to their workplace. Many people received the COVID-19 vaccine but see that others refuse it. Others have small children at home who cannot receive the vaccine. You may also have employees who are immune-compromised and worry even if they can get the vaccine.
Other concerns include childcare, return-to-school, and care for household members who suffer the long haul symptoms of coronavirus. Those concerns affect even the most healthy (and vaccinated) employees.
Employees may face mental health challenges that never registered in the pre-COVID years. Do not expect people to return to the same place they were last year; give them time to adjust. Allow adjustments to make an office space safer with social distancing and disinfectant. Be an accommodating work environment, whether that includes making space for childcare arrangements or allowing full-time employees with overwhelming concerns to remain remote workers.
Consider allowing more vulnerable employees to continue remote work. Another option is the hybrid work model, where workers continue working remotely and return to the office once or twice a week. Amazon and Microsoft are two examples of companies that embrace the hybrid approach. It accommodates employees with concerns and also makes room for collaboration activities.
The American Agents Alliance is here for you as you transition to the new normal for office work. There is no doubt that you may be behind on networking and lead generation during the lengthy lockdown. If you would like assistance jump-starting your business in this post-COVID age, consider becoming a member today to enjoy our many benefits.