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Returning to Work Safely When Change is Now

June 03, 2020


Workplaces of all shapes and sizes are weighing how to re-open safely while prioritizing employee and customer health. Restarting strong includes transforming physical spaces into safer environments in the era of Covid-19. While infectious disease experts say it won’t come without risk, business leaders are implementing immediate safety protocols to protect employees. From warehouses to retail stores and office space, find out how America is returning to work now—and reimagining the workplace of the future.

Protecting Manufacturing Workers

Ford rechoreographed their assembly line to prevent overlap and human contact.

Not only is the manufacturing industry the backbone of America’s supply chain, but it also employs 8.5 percent of the workforce as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Roughly 13 million Americans rely on a safe, functional shop floor for their livelihood, making the need for proper pandemic guidelines essential.

Opening its doors on May 18, NPR reported Ford as one of the first major players to get back to running under a new normal with 71,000 workers returning to its North American operations. Some of the guidelines from their extensive “Return to Work Manufacturing Playbook” are the expected—hand washing, face masks, and social distancing we’ve all become accustomed to. But the mandates are about more than that. Ford rechoreographed their assembly line to prevent overlap and human contact. With factories 3 to 4 million square feet in size, they changed density patterns to create appropriate distance for line workers. 

Ford is far from alone in this endeavor. ABC News reports that Cummins Engine Plant in Seymour, Indiana added temperature checks and a “hands out” process each day for employees to use and dispose of PPE. They’re added to a list of plants spanning the country as leaders try to resume production while keeping employee safety at the forefront.

To guide manufacturers through this process, the Association of Equipment Manufacturers created a best practices guide for Covid-19 management. While you’d expect to see suggestions regarding the uses of masks, face shields and even gowns for staff, it’s important to think through how employees get to the work site. If they take public transportation, managers should share social distancing and hygiene guidelines for commuters. Additionally, high-risk and vulnerable employees should be assessed before they step on the property. For example, if an employee lives with someone presenting signs of Covid-19 or recently traveled on a cruise, they should quarantine for 14-day incubation period. To accomplish this, businesses need to conduct routine screenings. Additionally, PTO and sick-leave policies may need to be adjusted so employees who are sick or exposed aren’t disciplined for staying home to keep coworkers safe.

Of course, the only area where employers have true control is the property itself. AEM suggests adding thermal scanning to entrances and sending anyone with a temperature over 100.4 degrees home. Only one person at a time should go through doorways, and employees should be greeted with signage that reminds them of social distancing practices and additional hygiene measures.

Manufacturing facilities should also undergo additional and regular cleaning of break rooms, bathrooms and common areas. Taking actions like banning communal food, blocking non-essential visitors from entering the property, and ceasing long group meetings can go a long way towards providing adequate social distancing. AEM also suggests looking at the way your workforce flows across the factory. “Stagger shift start/stop times, break times and lunch times to minimize congregations at the time clocks and in the locker rooms and break areas,” they advise. New shifts can also be created to spread production across evenings and weekends to produce the same output with lower overlap. Or, cross-train employees so they can perform multiple roles to accommodate distancing measures or provide coverage for additional absences.

A New Way Forward for Retail

Unlike manufacturing plants, retail stores can’t prohibit customers from entering. What would be the point? So how can employees and customers stay safe during the shopping process?

By leaning into a digital and omnichannel approach, many retailers are offering delivery or curbside pickup.

As we begin a phased re-opening, retailers are implementing measures to address store exposure and density. Nike will sanitize its stores every two hours, provide employees with masks and hand sanitizer, and created a touchless experience where shoppers scan barcodes with their own phones. By leaning into a digital and omnichannel approach, many retailers are offering delivery or curbside pickup. This integrates the online shopping experience with an in-person, touchless, fast way to get merchandise.

For those who want to shop in physical stores, department store giant, Macy’s, began re-opening in early May with new safety measures. Fitting rooms are one person at a time and sanitized between visits. Clothes also need to “rest” before being returned to the racks. Social distance signs are used through the stores, and all makeup experiences are “no touch” with plexiglass shields protecting cashiers.

Additional safety measures popping up as people flock back to stores include placing tape or stickers on the floor to indicate proper social distancing and traffic patterns for narrow aisles. Visually directing shoppers can make it easier for employees to oversee that proper distancing measures are being followed by staff and shoppers.

Behind the scenes, the Retail Industry Leaders Association provides re-opening suggestions and best practices for employees including adjusting seating in break rooms and other common areas, prohibiting gatherings or meetings of 10 or more employees, and discouraging employees from sharing devices, work stations or any other tools and equipment.

Reconfiguring Office Space

The prevailing trend at office buildings in the recent past was to create bright, open spaces that shunned the cube farm walls of the 80s and 90s. Open floor plans designed to bring people together in environments that invited collaboration were the ideal.

Now, as employees return to the office, these spaces may need to be retrofitted. Plexiglass and other partitions are being used to create physical distance. But outfitting offices for Covid-19 extends beyond desk spaces. Companies must look at traffic density, temperature screening technology, and air filtration systems to create safer environments for workers. Since social distancing is the primary goal, that means less people, phased returns, and more employees working from home permanently.

Cushman & Wakefield, a global real estate services firm, offers in-depth guidance for return to work in their Recovery Readiness Guide. They call it the “6 Feet Office” and recommend minimizing density and touchpoints. The back to work guidelines for office buildings include:

  • Continued work from home for non-essential onsite workers
  • Space density monitoring
  • A strict clean desk policy
  • A supply of masks, gloves, disinfectants, and paper products including desk placemats
  • Stringent cleaning and hygiene protocols
  • Regular cleaning and disinfecting of meeting rooms, break rooms, bathrooms and kitchen areas

...organizations that are empathetic and prioritize worker safety can build trust with their employees to help alleviate that fear.

"The changes we need to make to the office floor plans initially and immediately are fairly simple," Brett White, the firm’s CEO, tells ABC News. “We have to provide that safe six feet for every employee, not just when they're sitting at their desk, but when they're going to get a glass of water or they're walking around to the restroom and back.” The article also reports that deep cleaning is probably one of the most important considerations—also currently one of the least talked about topics.

Forrester Analyst Andrew Hewitt tells ZDNet there’s definitively one thing not to do—and that’s to bring back all your staff at once. Hewitt explains that the stakes to get it right are high with more than half of U.S. adults afraid to go back due to risk of exposure. He believes organizations that are empathetic and prioritize worker safety can build trust with their employees to help alleviate that fear.

Despite preparedness, infectious disease experts also warn that a virus-free office isn’t possible. “Anytime people spend prolonged periods of time in a poorly ventilated small space there’s risk of transmission,” Dr. David Aronoff explains to WZTV. The Vanderbilt University Medical Center infectious disease specialist says that until a treatment or vaccine is developed, people who spend time together in close office settings can spread the virus via respiratory droplets.

Due to the challenges ahead, a new frontier of office space norms may be emerging. Current considerations include permanent reductions in density, stricter sick leave policies, and use of materials like antimicrobial copper surfaces. Office space of the future could also be used in much different ways. Possibly as more of a time share for collaboration and social purposes versus employee occupied space for the full five-day workweek. 

We always expected the workplace to evolve with cool, new technology defining smarter ways to do things. But now there’s a new and immediate challenge that needs to be prioritized above everything else. No small task to be sure, but as employers and leaders, lean on the resources you need including health experts, CDC guidelines, and the safety protocols outlined here. It’s important to be thorough and to get it right to calm fears, ensure employee safety, and the overall health of your organization.