Portals that emit UV lighting designed to disinfect people as they walk past were installed, along with an air-quality monitoring system devised to detect viral pathogens in real-time. A self-disinfecting titanium dioxide coating was applied to multiple surfaces, including desks and monitors. And a new nontoxic cleaning product that uses a saline solution will routinely scour the workplace.
Christian Pinkston has spent $50,000 on state-of-the-art safety precautions for his staff of about 50 people to protect them from contracting COVID-19 when they return to his eponymous communications firm in Falls Church, Va.
Tenmile Land LLC has made post-pandemic preparations, too. The 17 people who work at the diversified oil and gas company have been divided into two groups that will alternate going into the office so there’s a least one empty cubicle between any two employees. Masks have been purchased, and employees must eat lunch at their desks instead of the big table where they all used to eat together.
Many companies are outfitting their workplaces to keep employees healthy and prevent another COVID-19 flareup when they return to the office, with efforts ranging from pricey high-tech systems to common-sense practices. Ford Motor Co. began a small pilot program in which employees wear wristbands that buzz when they stand too close to a colleague, while Amazon plans to start a COVID-19 testing facility for its workers. Employees now wear masks and take staggered breaks at the plant of Eosera, a Fort Worth, Texas-based maker of ear care products that’s considered an essential business. Some companies plan to take employees’ temperatures before allowing them into the workplace, with nurses being hired to lead the effort. Other firms want to add plexiglass dividers between employees but report difficulties in finding available contractors to erect them.
Workplaces will be dramatically transformed by the pandemic, and executives say formulating a plan to ensure employees’ physical safety and mental comfort is not easy. The U.S. hasn’t experienced anything like this situation in recent history, and conflicting messages about best practices abound. Federal, state and local authorities’ pronouncements aren’t always clear and can contradict one another, leaving those charged with creating return-to-work policies confused. Employers anticipate an increase in lawsuits from workers over how companies managed their COVID-19 responses.
“This is a minefield,” says Monica Narvaez, a Dallas-based partner at Estes Thorne & Carr who specializes in labor and employment law.
Employees are on edge after being besieged with news of the pandemic, and some may have been personally touched by its path. Nearly 50 percent of individuals don’t want to return to work until late June at the earliest, according to a study conducted in late April by O.C. Tanner, which creates employee recognition programs.
Some employees may be afraid. Others may lack child care options because schools and day care centers are closed. Summer camps may not open, leaving a hole for employees who count on them to keep their children occupied when the school year ends.
“You want to be sympathetic to people’s positions,” says Shawna Floyd, the chief operating officer of Bridgewater, W.V.-based Tenmile Land. “But you don’t want to be so sympathetic that you put yourself out of business.”
Many employers say they will accommodate those who prefer to continue working from home if it’s possible. Nearly 6 in 10 companies expect that their work-from-home policies will remain in effect after the pandemic ends, while roughly half expect to continue offering flexible work arrangements, according to a survey by consulting firm Willis Towers Watson.
That’s not just corporate largesse. In recent years, many companies adopted open-office seating arrangements that were designed to squeeze more people into small spaces to save money on real estate and prompt more collaboration. Today, those open spaces could be potential hot beds of contamination.
Volvo Car USA managers are deciding how to bring employees back to their Rockleigh, N.J., office, where no one had an assigned seat and there aren’t enough desks for the roughly 350 individuals to all be in the office at the same time. The company is considering staggering work schedules and adding desks to conference rooms and other open areas, says Jenn Fedak, Volvo Car USA’s people experience business partner.
“We don’t know what it’s going to look like yet,” Fedak says, adding that the company will institute a firm departure time for employees to give the maintenance crew enough time and space to adequately clean.
Cushman recently started a lab that will test technology to help companies decide which measures are worth the capital expenditures. “There are small behavior things companies can do that can be just as impactful as a lot of technology,” Katsikakis says.
For example, marking off six-foot perimeters on floors using different color carpets can aid in social-distancing. Installing inexpensive sensors to turn on lights, keeping doors open and distributing personal office supplies can reduce common touchpoints. Disposable desk placemats can help keep surfaces clean.
Katsikakis says she expects more companies to stagger working hours and let people continue to work from home as they begin to open. “You don’t need to bring 100 percent of the company back at the same time,” she says. “Think about who you need to bring back and why.”
Essential companies that have remained open during the pandemic say they haven’t had to reinvent the wheel to implement new safety standards. World Emblem transformed into a mask-making venture from a firm producing labels, stickers and nametags in a matter of days, says Randy Carr, the president and chief executive of the Hollywood, Fla.-based company. The roughly 300 employees at the Atlanta-based factory now work in two shifts to maintain social distancing. Some machines were also moved farther apart, and doors are now earmarked for either exit or entry, but not both. Employees no longer punch timecards and instead use their smartphones to register attendance and decrease touchpoints.
“It wasn’t that hard,” Carr says. “We have a devoted workforce. They trust us.”
Pinkston, owner of the communications firm, had been consulting with experts about his employees’ safety and decided he wasn’t satisfied that the measures adopted by many companies were up to his standards.
“We have a real family culture,” he explains. “I didn’t feel that I could let employees come back into an environment that I couldn’t verify was safe.”
He says the steps he took were “affordable” and “relatively permanent,” adding “if I over-reacted, I’d be thrilled.”
Even with all the extraordinary measures Pinkston has adopted, he says the company won’t rush the return to the office. It’s easy for employees to do their jobs at home, Pinkston says, and he certainly wouldn’t force anyone back.
Experts say employers should expect that some individuals won’t want to return to the workplace regardless of the safety measures instituted, and a portion of those who do come back will have issues reacclimating and maybe even a serious mental condition.
“Mental health is the secondary story for the virus, and it’s a major concern of employers,” says Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health at the American Psychiatric Foundation. “There is tremendous angst for people.”
Gruttadaro suggests that employers partner with their health plans to develop materials highlighting the importance of mental health, the services available and how to access them.
Messaging should convey that the country has been through a traumatic time and feelings of unease are to be expected. Managers should learn some of the warning signs for conditions such as anxiety and depression and reach out to those they think might be struggling.
“Make sure managers and supervisors are comfortable starting a conversation,” Gruttadaro says. “If someone is acting differently, they should take the time to ask them if they’re OK.” And if they deflect, she says, “follow-up is crucial.”
Theresa Agovino is the workplace editor for SHRM.
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