Reopening Business In a New Reality: What Small Companies Need to Know

As federal and state governments deliberate on the best way to reopen the economy, companies without a dedicated HR team are faced with a numerous, valid concerns as they prepare to bring their employees back from pandemic-related quarantines.

COVID-19 has not only shaken up the economy, but also the psyche of employers and employees looking to get back to business, safety.

While characteristics of the pandemic continue to influence planning, there are aspects businesses large and small will want to address:

Obey the Law

With changing guidance at the Federal level, different guidelines for each state, and many of the requirements contingent on which industry a company is in, it is hard to know exactly what the law requires. Find the most definitive and trustworthy source of information for your locale and industry, and check with it before making major decisions. If you are not sure, contact your insurance agent, as they may be able to point you to the most authoritative source.

Best practices that dictate office re-opening should be gradual and follow government recommendations for physical distancing and other risk mitigation measures. Employees working from home should be encouraged to continue to do so in concordance with state recommendations. Returning to work at the physical office location may be permitted after a thorough personal risk assessment has been completed. Such measures will likely be in the spirit of the law, no matter where your company is located.

As you begin to explore the return to work timeline and appropriate conditions, it is important to not target individuals who have reported being potentially immunocompromised, are pregnant, or fall into the vulnerable age group. Err on the side of relying on employees to volunteer questions to management directly, rather than asking management to seek out these individuals.

Make A Plan and Stick To It

Take the time to iron out a definition for who is considered an essential employees at your business.  This would include personnel who are vital to the success of the business, or where the absence of the employee greatly impacts the business in a negative fashion. Communicate with your team and look to current policies to determine how recalls from furlough and layoffs should occur. Any union or other agreements should also be reviewed when asking which staff members to return. Be aware that staff members who refuse to work may be protected under certain laws and regulations.

Consider these factors in formulating your re-opening plan:

  • Has your industry shifted post vs. pre-COVID? If so, how does that directly impact my business?
  • Have physical requirements shifted (is on-site attendance an essential function of the job?)?
  • Are there responsibilities that can, or should, be re-allocated?
  • Have any changes taken place that have rendered previously essential job duties irrelevant?

Safety First

The goal should be to make it as safe and practical for all employees to be able to return to work. Unfortunately, there is currently no clear definition of exactly what “safe” looks like across all businesses.  Start by designating a point person or task force to oversee the return to work process, handle all questions related to staff returning to work, and publish and distribute updated policies and procedures that include these new regulations. This will help to ensure the same message is communicated across the organization.

There are a variety of different needs and comfort levels among employees, dependent upon factors such as: strongly held personal beliefs regarding COVID-19 (vaccines, herd-immunity, risk of transmission) and how it affects their personal safety and mental well-being. Employers should work to accommodate these factors while finding ways to hold them accountable to business goals.

If an employee requests an accommodation or extended leave, encourage the employee to contact the designated employer representative as soon as they are able. Ensure the proper policy is followed for all such requests.

All employees considering coming to the office should consult a medical professional regarding any personal medical conditions they have, understanding they may greatly increase the risks associated with personally contracting or spreading COVID-19. Employees with medical conditions that increase their risk or those considered part of the vulnerable group, should self-isolate and refrain from coming to the office.

For the safety of others, employees who exhibit symptoms or test positive should be asked to remain at home for at least 14 days per CDC guidelines.

Work Room

Determine the maximum number of employees allowed at the office at any one time; the physical distancing guidelines outlined in the updated policies and procedures should be adhered to without exception. Some workplaces may have space limitations. If you don’t have adequate space, consider staggering start and end times, as well as rest breaks and meal breaks, to enable staff to maintain physical distancing. Be open to alternative work schedules, including having staff work later at night or earlier in the morning to reduce the number of staff on-site at one time.

For those employees sharing the same workspace at the same time, they should always stay six feet away from others, taking special care if using meeting rooms, break rooms, or other shared spaces. No employees should be seated at workstations that are face-to-face. Staff should eliminate physical contact with others, such as handshakes or embracing coworkers. And when possible, employees should avoid touching surfaces touched by others.

It is recommended to fully open or crack office doors and windows promote additional airflow. Depending on the state, employers may be required to provide facemasks, gloves or other personal protective equipment. Check local and state laws for guidance and additional details to determine if certain staff may require additional personal protective equipment.

A Clean Start

Workplaces should undergo a deep cleaning and be thoroughly disinfected before reopening. The rate of routine cleaning should be increased. Additionally, the cleaning process should be revised to encompass a more comprehensive schedule, including sanitizing and disinfecting all areas of the office such as desks, bathrooms, break rooms, walls, floors and windows. Also, check the air quality/filtering systems and the cadence of maintaining/replacement of filters. Make sure you have adequate supplies of hand sanitizers, soap, and other sanitary products in stock.

Cleaning protocols should be established before allowing staff to bring back company equipment. Employers may want to have all phones, laptops, tablets, keys and keycards, etc. be returned to the office before reporting to work to allow all products to remove any potential contaminants. Personal items on an employee’s desk should be limited to essential items. Those items, however, should be properly cleaned before being placed on their desk.  All office supplies and items on the employee desk should be disinfected on a regular basis.

Keeping Safety in Mind

Not only will these measures help protect employees and your business; they will contribute to a mindset of reasonable caution. There will actually be dozens of other considerations on how you conduct your business in a way that is both safe and practical. Be sure to utilize trusted resources for a more extensive list of such considerations.

By implementing these steps as early as possible, employers will be able to quickly and safely resume the “normal” way of life that we are all looking to achieve.

With the qualification of being a dynamic leader who is capable of establishing and implementing profit-minded corporate strategies, Alex Campos is currently the CEO of Vensure, where he manages the day to day operation of the company. Mr. Campos also manages the system information that sells worker comp policies to employers, using his extensive knowledge in technology and understanding of operations.

Business reopen stock photo by Nattakorn_Maneerat/Shutterstock