While some have had to roll back openings due to local COVID-19 infection spikes, all states and municipalities in the United States have allowed at least some businesses to go back to work in either a full or limited capacity after initial pandemic lockdowns. Whether organizations are proceeding with reopening now or are preparing to do so in the near future, this process carries significant risks that demand careful management. Many businesses are eager to resume more normal operations, but employers and employees must consider a variety of both new and old risks before reopening their doors and returning to work.
For a business to successfully reopen, the organization will need to prioritize three goals: 1) reduce the likelihood of transmission within the workplace, 2) resume and maintain business operations, and 3) continue to promote a healthy and safe work environment. These three goals can only be achieved by developing a thorough, comprehensive business resumption plan and addressing the potential business disruptors.
Reducing Transmission Opportunities
Public health experts have stressed that handwashing, disinfecting surfaces, and wearing coverings over the nose and mouth are key measures in controlling transmission. While seemingly simple, these remain critical and workplaces should continue to enforce them. The purpose of these control measures is to disrupt the transmission cycle. As we now understand, this virus spreads rapidly within the general public, whether or not a person exhibits symptoms, as many asymptomatic individuals can still transmit the virus to others.
Social distancing is also important to reduce transmission. Continuing to provide work-at-home accommodations for employees who request reasonable accommodations may work for the short-term. For those who return to workplaces, achieving the recommended six feet of separation between individuals requires some social engineering. Elevators, access points and open floor designs are common components of office setups that create risk. To reduce the risks of riding in elevators, promoting the use of stairwells could be useful, but may be impractical for some businesses. Wearing masks while inside elevators and using gloves to press elevator control buttons should be highly encouraged. Staggering work schedules by floors or workgroups can also minimize the number of employees entering the building and using the elevators at the same time.
Companies that use open-floor designs in their offices should conduct careful analysis before employees return. One question to consider is whether employees need to wear masks while at their workstations. Wearing masks all day can be restrictive and may cause issues for some workers, particularly those who need to have phone conversations. Plastic dividers or tri-boards are another option that may ease the risks in shared spaces by creating functional cubicles, however, this may only be a short-term strategy. Whatever solution they select, companies must have separation measures in place before reopening to reduce the risk of an outbreak among employees.
Resuming and Maintaining Business Operations
Many companies—particularly small businesses—will fail if they attempt to boil the ocean when resuming operations. This may mean making decisions not only about how they operate in terms of staffing and social distancing implementation, but also in terms of the services provided. Companies need to focus on what they do exceptionally well and provide those services during this critical period. As the company becomes more stable over subsequent weeks, they can then incorporate additional services into the business portfolio. Trying to do it all at once when the company starts back could be dangerous, considering suppliers, transportation networks and the customer base are all affected by restrictions.
Businesses that can get their doors open, communicate frequently with their customers, and take steps to strengthen their supply chains will recover faster than businesses that are slower to respond. This means facilities need to ensure they are free of hazards and can meet the requirements imposed by government restrictions.
For example, retailers may find it helpful to reduce the number of display areas, number of tables or pieces of common furniture, and implement any necessary measures to limit occupant capacity. Retailers should also look at their inventory levels and determine what items sell most frequently and what is reasonably stable over the next several weeks. Place quick-turnover items on the floor for sale instead of things that have a higher profit margin but rarely move.
Another factor to consider is communication with customers. Customer communication needs to be frequent and take advantage of every available format, such as social media, window displays, promotional materials and even phone calls to loyal customers. These methods of communication will assist in getting the word out about your reopening. Customers may be hesitant to return to public spaces during this time, so providing curbside pickup, delivery services and shipping during this time will be beneficial. The customer base may respond slowly, but there is also increased public focus on supporting businesses right now, so be ready for a range of demand scenarios.
Promoting a Healthy and Safe Workplace
OSHA’s general duty clause requires all employers to maintain a workplace free from hazards. This requirement is somewhat tricky when dealing with an invisible risk.
Hazards can manifest themselves in a variety of areas in the workplace. For example, employers that offer cafeteria services need to consider running a minimum menu for the next several weeks. Food should be prepared and placed in single-serve containers to minimize the possibility of contamination. In some workplaces, employees may eat in break areas or other common areas. During this time, consider extending the lunch break times to allow people to eat inside their vehicles or to move off-site. The highest risks for transmission within the workforce will be when the employees are using shared spaces, such as copier rooms, break rooms, cafeterias and bathrooms. While the pandemic remains an active threat, consider having dedicated janitorial services working around the clock to clean these higher-risk areas.
Employers should also create and enforce procedures to detect possible infections before they become outbreaks across the workforce. Temperature checks can help identify individuals running a fever, but can be more invasive than necessary, especially considering the number of people who either do not exhibit symptoms generally or fever specifically. Personal protective equipment like masks, gloves and eyewear should be worn when employees are working closely alongside one another, such as in factories or distribution centers.
Employers can also consider creating shifts to reduce the number of people working in close proximity for prolonged periods of time. During the SARS outbreak, for example, one company focused on creating assembly line teams. Four teams worked around the clock, with two welders at a time working in six-hour shifts rather than having eight on the line at once. Changing the number of welders worked well for the organization because they achieved their goals of steady production, meeting customer demands and creating stability within their workforce. The employees felt better working in smaller numbers, time schedules were adjusted to meet their individual needs, and incentives were paid for achieving personal production goals rather than team goals.
As businesses reduce budgets and cut spending, two line-items should not be reduced under any circumstances: employee assistance programs and cybersecurity.
Employee assistance programs (EAPs) are critical now. Individuals may need professional assistance from substance abuse counselors, mental health workers and legal services. Continue offering EAP services during this time to ensure employees are receiving the right care at the right time. Given the significant widespread social turbulence, it may also be wise to ensure adequate mitigation measures are in place to address workplace violence risks. Make sure managers know how to detect workplace violence risks and what to do when employees report or detect workplace violence issues. Consider providing employees with information on what to do in the event of a workplace violence incident as well.
Cyberrisks are also increasing during this time of widespread disruption and economic slowdown. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has reported an increase in phishing attempts, malware distribution, registration of suspect domains and attacks against remote access networks. These risks are not new, but they do require vigilance, especially with a workforce that may not be operating on their usual work equipment and protected networks or may be experiencing frustration due to reduced hours, lower wages, loss of earnings, or recent termination, layoffs or furloughs. External threats are significant to the organization, but insider threats could also hamper the organization’s recovery efforts just as easily. Continue to maintain security protocols, educate employees about cyberrisks and be prepared to respond to cyberthreats.
As businesses resume operations, there will be delays and issues to overcome. Consider talking to your broker or insurance agent about loss control services available during this time. Above all, it is important to create a plan to resume operations, train employees on operational changes, discuss new expectations and norms with staff, and be ready to address any new risks that may emerge.