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How to Navigate the Return to Work

The pandemic forced many organizations to adopt remote work policies for those employees who were not deemed essential workers. While there were many workers who remained on the “front lines”, (medical professionals and food service industry professionals come to mind), this blog will focus on companies that are in the process of bringing their employees back to the office.

As a rising percentage of the population becomes vaccinated against COVID-19 and restrictions are slowly, but surely, being lifted, many employers have started on the journey of having employees return to the office after over a year of remote work. Whether your company will bring all employees back onsite, will continue working with a distributed workforce, or will manage a hybrid model, businesses need a return to work plan that will ensure business continuity while being mindful of both the physical and mental health of employees. There are questions that business owners and leadership teams should consider during the transition.

Is your office ready? Evaluate the office building to determine if it is ready to be occupied. If the office has been vacant for a while, inspect ventilation systems to ensure there are no blockages and the filters are clean, test water systems for mold and other chemical or microbiological elements, inspect the facility for signs of any pests that may have taken up residence, etc. Take appropriate corrective action for these and other hazards before employees return to the facility.

Identify any areas of the office that need to be modified to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and other microorganisms. Consider the capacity of waiting rooms, break rooms, and conference rooms to help maintain recommended physical distancing guidelines. Will you need to install any physical barriers that weren’t in the workplace prior to the pandemic? Look to the CDC and OSHA for updated guidance on best practices.

Are your employees ready? Some employees may be eager to return to a sense of normalcy, but a survey conducted by Morning Consult, a data intelligence company, reports 87% of Americans want to continue working remotely at least one day a week. Employers are faced with the fact that the “traditional” office may never be the same again.

In addition, employers should keep in mind the grief and loss that employees and their families could be coping with. Actively listen to your employees as they express their concerns and ask them what they need to manage this transition.

What company policies should be in place? Be ready to train employees on safety protocols and continue to encourage proper hygiene and physical distancing measures. You may have employees who request accommodations for physical or mental disabilities under the ADA. Some reasonable accommodations for high-risk employees may include providing additional PPE, modifying a work schedule, or allowing the employee to continue working remotely, especially if they were meeting the expectations of their job prior to the return to the office.

Be sure that you have a strong Injury and Illness Prevention Program in place as part of your safety plan. In order to maintain compliance with federal guidance on employee COVID-19 screenings, employers can report cases in their workforce following OSHA’s Injury and Illness record-keeping process, instruct employees with an infectious disease to contact their health care provider, and train staff on leave policies, privacy regulations, and processes for working with local health departments.

Is it time to review your current sick leave policy? The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) included a paid leave mandate that expired on December 21, 2020, but the Emergency Paid Sick Leave (EPSL) and Expanded Family Medical Leave (EFMLA) can be provided to employees on a voluntary basis. If an employer elects to provide sick leave based on the FFCRA, the tax credits have been extended until September 20, 2021. Also, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) allows coverage for the following reasons: (1) obtaining a COVID-19 vaccine; (2) recovering from any side effects or disabilities related to obtaining the vaccine; and (3) the time spent seeking or waiting for the results of a COVID-19 test if they have been exposed to the virus or if their employer has requested the test.

Employers can require that employees are vaccinated as a condition of their employment. However, if you decide to institute a mandatory vaccination policy, you need to make exceptions and/or accommodations for employees who have medical conditions that prevent them from being vaccinated or have a sincere religious belief against being vaccinated. If you are not mandating the vaccine, consider providing information about how the vaccines work to help educate your staff with objective, scientific information from credible sources.

In anticipation of a surge in mental health symptoms coinciding with the return to work, employers should consider implementing Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). If you already have an EAP in place, clearly communicate to your employees that there are available support services that they can utilize.

This is not a comprehensive list of questions that employers should be asking themselves, but it is a start. Employers should be communicating information about COVID-19 and return to work policies frequently and consistently. According to the Harvard Business Review, employees who regularly receive updates from company leadership are 55% more likely to be proud to work for their companies and 43% more likely to look forward to going back to work. Keeping both the physical and mental health and well-being of your employees at the forefront of your return to work plan will provide a smooth transition for everyone.


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