People who have been working from home for weeks because of the COVID-19 pandemic will return to a decidedly different workplace than they had previously once the economy gets going again.
Changes will span a range of workplace environments, including offices, shop floors, breakrooms and conference rooms. Wearing face masks and having more distance between workers will become the norm, along with routine temperature checks and continually cleaning and sanitizing the workplace, tools, equipment and workstations.
Those and other practices are all part of the proverbial “new normal” for employers working to navigate the deadly pandemic that has disrupted daily routines, thrown the economy into recession and may linger for many months until a vaccine is developed.
“As business leaders, you have to make sure you’re taking the responsibility for your employees,” Kentwood-based Autocam Medical Devices LLC CEO John Kennedy said during a recent back-to-work webinar hosted by Advantage Benefits Group Inc. “It’s incumbent on us as businesses to make sure that we do all of these practices that truly make these places safe.”
A producer of medical devices that’s helped with products like ventilators to support the supply chain during the pandemic, Autocam Medical is considered an essential business and has continued operating with safeguards in place.
In preparing to reopen and bring back employees, companies should designate leaders to manage the overall response to the pandemic, said Keith Hustak, vice president of outpatient services at Spectrum Health. This includes overseeing specific tasks such as sanitizing and disinfecting, protocols to prevent infections and the spread of the coronavirus, communication and training for employees, and procuring personal protection equipment in the workplace.
Companies should put that team together weeks before reopening and hold daily team meetings “to talk about all of these things,” Hustak said during the Advantage Benefits webinar.
“You have to be diligent about executing on these tasks before your employees go back to work,” Hustak said. “Your business cannot look like it did pre-COVID, and if it does, that means you’re not doing some things right, so you have to get a team engaged on this.”
Anne Leighty, a partner at Rockford-based Phoenix Consulting Group LLC, urges employers who consider reopening to keep up to date on the requirements of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, as well as the equivalent state regulatory agency, plus guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Controls and Prevention.
State and federal agencies regularly update guidance and requirements as the pandemic progresses, Leighty said.
“Be informed. The information is constantly changing. It isn’t a one-time read-it-and-know-what-to-do,” she said.
In developing new social distancing policies for their offices and facilities, employers can consider spreading out workstations or implementing one-way hallways, said Bryan Blackburn, another partner at Phoenix Consulting Group. The firm, which is offering a free hour of consulting during the pandemic, provides services in accounting, human resources, information technology and finance.
Employers also need to develop practices for disinfecting their offices and facilities — more than once a day for high-traffic areas — and figure out policies for visitors, clients and vendors, Blackburn said.
“What do you do if you have a visitor? What’s the protocol for the facilities? Do they have to get prior authorization before entering the building? Are they physically cleared? Are they tested? Those are some areas that really need to be addressed,” he said.
A little slack
Perhaps the best thing employers and employees can do is give a little slack as everyone adjusts to the pandemic, Leighty said. She cites workers with children who have been doing school lessons at home. Now mom or dad, or both, might have to go back to the office each day with a few weeks or more still left in the school year.
“How frustrating can that be? You’re required to now come back into the office, plus the kids are at home and it’s not like summer. You need to be doing curriculum with them,” Leighty said, adding that employers may find those workers want to continue working at home for a bit longer.
“There’s going to be a lot of frustration on both sides,” she said, citing instances in which employees who had been working from home and would prefer to continue doing so are not allowed to by their employer. “And, actually, vice versa: There are people that maybe need to get out of the house. It’s just an unknown right now and each business is going to have to take their own approach. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer.”
Individuals deal with the pandemic differently on an emotional level, and patience and understanding with one another is crucial, according to the consultants. For instance, some employees may not adjust well to wearing a face mask at work, Leighty said.
Employers also need to communicate their plans regularly with returning employees, Blackburn added.
“The folks that have not been to work in the past two months, they don’t know what the changes are at their work facility, so when they enter that first day it’s all new. Management needs to realize that the learning curve may be greater than what they’re expecting,” said Blackburn, who emphasizes the need for understanding as everyone adjusts.
“Show compassion, not only for your own family and employees, but your clients and your business partners,” he said. “If we can work together with a single goal in mind, we’ll get through this together.”
Business leaders also will have to adjust their internal operations as they adapt the company to the economic conditions resulting from the pandemic. Companies will need to rethink the future, make new projections for revenues and then plan accordingly, said Ronald Miller, a managing director at Grand Rapids-based BlueWater Partners LLC.
“None of us will really know exactly what our ‘new normal’ is going to look like,” Miller said. “We do not know where the economy is going, so business owners really need to look at a number of different scenarios and different probabilities into how their business is going to be ramping up.”
In general, business owners and executives should “be very realistic about their business and the impact on their business that the virus has had” and “make sure that you are protecting the viability of your company long term by being very proactive on addressing the new environment,” Miller said.
Jeff Jackson, also a managing director at BlueWater Partners, encourages companies to run “best case, likely case, worst case” scenarios to understand what the business faces “and then have a plan for each of those cases.”
State and federal regulations already require employers to provide a safe workplace. Guidelines issued during the pandemic call for additional practices in health, safety and social distancing protocols, as well as criteria for restarting operations and bringing back workers.
“You just have to look at each piece of your business systematically. That way, once you understand, ‘OK, this is what my business is going to look like going forward for the next 12 to 18 months,’ (I can determine) how I need to respond with people and the safety plan that I need to have in place for each one,” Jackson said.
Some practices, such as increased cleaning and distancing workers, “I don’t think those are going away soon, and they probably shouldn’t,” he said.
In the weeks since the pandemic spread to Michigan, Autocam Medical has implemented protocols to prevent the spread of the coronavirus within its facilities and workforce.
In that time, “our practice has improved dramatically,” Kennedy said.
“What we’ve done is gotten down to what we think are the critical factors for actually making a difference, flattening the curve, preventing the spread, however you want to express that, and then maintaining an extremely safe workforce,” Kennedy said.
Autocam Medical has 500 employees at three facilities and “we’re pretty much doing the same thing at all of the facilities,” he said.
The company had one employee at its Plymouth, Mass. facility who tested positive for COVID-19. The employee recovered and is doing well, said Kennedy, who credits protocols the company put in place as being “instrumental” in preventing the spread of the virus at the facility.
“It definitely shows that you can operate with these protocols and your business can certainly be at lower risk,” he said. “I think a lot of the manufacturing businesses in particular, and construction and other businesses, you can truly socially distance and actually operate this way.”
Autocam Medical’s practices include wearing face masks, checking employees’ temperature daily, encouraging frequent and thorough hand washing, increased housekeeping, keeping worker stations at least six feet apart, and limiting density in common areas such as lunch and conference rooms. The company separated tables and removed chairs from common areas “just to make sure that people are not congregating, because that’s the tendency,” Kennedy said.
The company hired staff to continually “clean all work surfaces that a human hand touches,” including his own office. Autocam Medical also adjusted its attendance policy for employees who had COVID-19 symptoms.
“We paid people fully to stay home. That’s probably been one of the most important things that we’ve done,” said Kennedy, who sees a change in the company’s system becoming permanent to prevent the spread of colds or the flu in the workplace and keep people from coming to work when they’re sick.
“We haven’t figured out what to do yet, but we certainly want to make sure that our policy works in a way that encourages people to stay home when they have some type of sickness,” he said.
Through April 27, Autocam Medical also paid employees to stay home if they live with someone who has a chronic illness that makes them vulnerable to COVID-19, he said.
In office settings, companies may continue to have some employees work from home at least part of the time to maintain social distancing in the workplace.
Working at home is an increasingly welcomed option among office workers, according to a late-April survey of more than 1,000 people conducted by national HR consulting firm Robert Half International.
Nearly eight in 10 respondents said they’d like their employer to allow them to work from home more frequently, and 63 percent said they realized their job was doable from home.
Nearly half said they hope their employer will change the office layout, 55 percent want staggered work schedules, and seven out of 10 want fewer in-person meetings and training.