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Essential Tips For Returning To The Office

Returning To The Office After COVID-19Let’s look at the implications of returning to the office after COVID-19. As restrictions begin to ease, the focus of employers has shifted from trying to maintain operations through remote working, to returning to the office for their employees to the office. Employers will need to navigate a myriad of issues and pitfalls to successfully implement that transition to maximize their production, maintain their workforce, and to avoid costly litigation. In this guide, our employment group will highlight the challenges and solutions to these issues and provide employers with a blueprint for returning to the office.

Preparing for Employees’ Returning to the Office

Develop a Return to Work Plan. The process of returning to the office begins before the first returning employee steps through the door. Employers should first formulate a return to work plan that covers all phases of a return to the office, identifies areas of concern to be addressed, and provides for the enactment and implementation of new policies and procedures. Our employment group can assist employers through the creation and implementation of this plan.

Communicate with Employees. Effective and efficient communication is necessary to keep employees up to date on the latest decisions regarding return to work and the on-going effects of COVID-19. Effective communication will also serve to limit rumors, misinformation, and anxiety. Employers may consider having one point of contact for COVID-related happenings, creating specific communication channels for COVID news and updates, and even conducting anonymous surveys of their employees. Employers may also consider utilizing their communications system and their employment counsel to conduct employee trainings on the new office dynamics resulting from the pandemic.

Update Company Policies. Enacting these changes and other COVID-based changes will likely require employers to institute new polices governing their workplace. Some specific policies that employers should implement include: protocols for confirmed or suspected COVID cases; employees working remotely; wearing of masks and other personal protective equipment; medical questionnaires and temperature checks; limits on non-essential travel; revised policies on leaves of absence and workplace accommodations; benefits and compensation; and reinforce policies prohibiting discrimination, harassment and retaliation. Our employment group has significant experience in policy review and enactment with all manner of employers and businesses.

Renovate Physical Office Space. In addition to preparing the office through policies and procedures, employers must also look to prepare the physical workspace. During this time distancing and minimizing congregation are crucial. Employers should limit employees from gathering in groups in enclosed spaces. File rooms, copier rooms and kitchen are prime examples of tight quarters where employees were used to gathering. In some instances, employers may need to move workstations or significantly limit the use of other areas to ensure proper distancing is possible. Employers should also be providing masks, sanitizer and other sterilizing products to have employees maintain their own work area and to disinfect office-wide equipment and spaces after their use. Finally, employers must ensure that the entire office is cleaned as frequently and thoroughly as possible when employees have left for the day.

Employees Back in the Office

Staggered Work Schedules. Employers must evaluate whether they will bring back all of their employees at once or if some sort of staggered return is possible. This may include only bringing back truly essential workers, and/or instituting different schedules where some employees are in the office on certain days, i.e. Monday and Wednesdays, while other employees will be in the office on different days, i.e. Tuesday and Thursday. The key with such a staggered schedule is keeping employees’ cross-exposure to a limited group and ensuring thorough cleaning between work groups. Employers must also consider where their employees sit and whether they will implement some sort of rotation system for workstations.

Provision of PPE. Once the employees have returned to the office, employers must determine how they will handle the issuance of and requirements of wearing masks, maintaining distancing, and whether the employer will conduct medical testing such as temperature checks. Employers are able to inquire with their employees about their recent medical histories, and can monitor employees’ vital signs for indications of infection. However, these measures carry with them certain risks, most notably the requirements to preserve the confidentiality of employees’ medical information. Our employment group has medical questionnaires and health screening protocols we share with our clients to protect the employer and their workforce.

Stay Prepared. Just as important as preparing for a return to the office is preparing for and being flexible to accommodate a return to more remote operations. With new infections seemingly on the rise and the threat of a “second spike,” employers should also take this time to review what did and did not work during their remote operations and plan accordingly. Employers should institute specific policies for remote work, and clearly define expectations for employees working remotely.

The Threat of Litigation

One other area employers should prepare for is an incoming wave of litigation. Exposure to COVID-related litigation remains high as everyone is navigating uncharted waters and there is a constant risk of employee exposure and injury.

Update and Enforce Company Policies. Threats of litigation lie in mask requirements, ADA concerns, employee privacy related to health screenings, leave issues, and reductions to the workforce and associated whistleblower complaints. Having up-to-date policies that incorporate state and federal guidelines is necessary to defend against litigation. Failure to maintain and enforce policies will result in exposure and costly litigation.

Maintain Good Records. Employers should take care to ensure they have complete and detailed records for all employees including performance reviews, communications, and any complaints made by or against employees. Additionally, employers should seek the advice of counsel when dealing with employment situations to prevent a small issue from becoming a big and expensive problem. Although these measures cannot prevent employees form bringing suit, these efforts often put employers in a better position to defend and resolve claims in a much more cost-effective manner.

Going Forward

The road back to the office is an exceedingly long and complicated one, but with the right counsel by your side, these issues become exceedingly more manageable. Our employment practice is here to assist employers in all phases of their transition back to in-person operations. From creating an initial plan framework to defending against any employment-related claim, our team is with you every step of the way and will enable you to manage your workforce and preserve your business needs.

If you have questions about this new case and related issues, please contact Megan K. Balne at 856.355.2936 or balne@hylandlevin.com or Michael G. Greenfield at 856.355.2931 or greenfield@hylandlevin.com

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