Preparing the COVID-19 Workplace: How to Minimize Risk When Bringing Employees Back

Barney Beal, Former Content Director

June 18, 2020

As the nation’s economy slowly re-opens, one of the most important decisions businesses must make is how to bring employees back into the workplace in the safest way possible.

For Christine DeGrammont, director of training and development for Innovative Office Solutions, a provider of office productivity services and products, the process starts with listening to employees express their reservations—both ways.

“It’s critical that you make your employees feel heard,” said DeGrammont during the most recent event in Oracle NetSuite’s Open For Business series(opens in new tab). “You might be surprised at why some people don’t want to be working at home.”

DeGrammont noted there are many reasons an employee may not feel working from home is sustainable — including the possibility that they don’t feel safe there.

“Don’t assume anything,” she said. “Ask more questions.”

Keep Communication Open and Practices Clear

Innovative Office Solutions, based in Burnsville, Minn., just south of Minneapolis, has kept the lines of communication open with weekly virtual town-hall meetings with the entire staff to provide updates and answer questions. The firm also has assembled return-to-work care kits that include facemasks, gloves, hand sanitizer and disinfectants.

The company, which sells pretty much everything an office needs, from furniture and technology to break room services and cleaning supplies, has had to make big changes in how it sells products as a result of COVID-19. For instance, since customers are reluctant to visit its showrooms, Innovative Office Solutions has started using a 3D video platform to let them tour its locations virtually.

It also has published tips for customers on how to create a safe environment(opens in new tab) on its website, including sharing its own approach. DeGrammont said the recommendations revolve around a matrix that considers how much traffic a spot gets and how frequently it’s touched. She suggests that companies focus on areas that are high or medium traffic, and high touch, including reception areas, break rooms, restrooms, elevators, escalators and stairs.

The company recommends that businesses develop clear COVID-19-era practices, such as temperature checks at entrances, cleaning protocols, air purification, social distancing standards and eliminating the need to touch things wherever possible.

COVID-19: A Different Beast

DeGrammont was joined on the event panel by representatives of two other companies that have an even greater stake in workplace safety.

Charlotte, N.C.-based Enviro-Master has an especially timely specialty: It intervenes when organizations are faced with viral outbreaks. Normally, that’s meant helping customers deal with annual influenza surges, or the occasional norovirus incident.

But CEO Pat Swisher made it clear that COVID-19 requires more rigorous steps.

“If they can take temperatures at the airport, you can do it at your front door,” said Swisher. “This isn’t a cold. It’s a lot more serious than that.”

Taking employees’ temperatures as they enter the building (and sending them home immediately if they have any fever) is an important start, but Swisher said there’s much more. He recommends that companies be strategic about who they bring into the office. In Enviro-Master’s case, the company has made sure not to bring in too many senior employees at once for fear  too many important decision-makers might need to take leave simultaneously.

Swisher also said companies should make sure every employee has a facemask and hand sanitizer and train employees to avoid crowded areas where people are being funneled from one place to another. For example, if the bathroom is crowded, he said, employees should wait for it to thin out before entering.

He also recommended that companies stop using restroom hand-blowers, which can scatter viral droplets.

“A Whole Different World”

Not surprisingly, demand for Enviro-Master’s services have surged of late, to the tune of 40% growth over the last eight weeks. The company, which operates with a franchise model, also has seen a huge uptick in interest for franchises, and it has shifted to virtual orientations with new franchisees instead of in-person meetings.

“This is a whole different world,” Swisher said.

Swisher and DeGrammont were joined by Nathan Baker, managing director of the consulting arm of the Institute of Occupational Medicine, an independent research institute that looks at occupational and environmental health risks.

Like his co-panelists, Baker has had to grapple with how to bring his employees back into the workplace in addition to helping clients better understand how to minimize the risks for their returning employees.

Also like his co-panelists, Baker wasn’t surprised when a poll of attendees found that most employees have been just as productive—if not more so—working at home. That, in itself, is reason to consider whether to bring people back to the office at all.

“It’s been a huge experiment for us all in how we interact with technology and each other in a different way,” said Baker. 

Must, Should or Could?

Internally, IOM has been relying on what Baker called a “must/should/could” philosophy. Employees who “could” return to the workplace are told to stay at home. Those who “should” are asked to stay at home, at least for the time being. And employees who “must” return to the workplace undergo a process to ensure they understand the implications.

For those employees that are being brought back in, Baker recommends seeking input for ideas that make them feel safer. He said this not only empowers them, but also can result in great solutions that might even add value to the company.

If any theme emerged from Baker’s comments, it was that changing behavior is critical if new practices are going to deliver the desired impact. For instance, a company can require masks, but if an employee takes off a mask, lays it on a contaminated surface, and rubs his or her eyes, the hygiene benefits have been compromised.

Apart from all the obvious practices—masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, cleaning, etc.—Baker said businesses also need to look at other hazards that might lurk in facilities that have been idle for weeks. Contaminants can collect in ventilation systems and become airborne when those systems are turned back on, and things like e-coli could have bred on surfaces.

And lest businesses are looking for a time when things will return to the way they were, Baker suggested they let go of that fantasy.

“The old world is gone,” he said. “If we think we’re going be sitting in breakout spaces and talking around the water cooler, it’s just not going to be happening.”

For more helpful information from the NetSuite Blog and our friends at Brainyard(opens in new tab) and the Grow Wire(opens in new tab), visit the Business Now Resource Guide(opens in new tab).

NetSuite has packaged the experience gained from tens of thousands of worldwide deployments over two decades into a set of leading practices that pave a clear path to success and are proven to deliver rapid business value. With NetSuite, you go live in a predictable timeframe — smart, stepped implementations begin with sales and span the entire customer lifecycle, so there's continuity from sales to services to support.