COVID-19 Offices In 2020: What To Expect When You Return To Work

Er. Dinshah Aspi Anklesvaria is a practicing priest and a Human Resources professional, working with the house of Tatas. He commands over thirteen years of experience in the hospitality and culinary sector in various capacities and expertise in the areas of  Human Resources and Training.

While many of us are coping with the ‘work-from-home’ and ‘stay-at-home’ work regimes, do you wonder what employers do while we are at home, or how they are preparing for our eventual return to office? As India (along with other nations) eases up on the lockdown, employers are feverishly working through logistics in implementing precautionary measures to ensure a safe return to work for their employees. It would be naïve to expect employees to come and work just as they used to, pre-COVID-19. The pandemic’s consequences are far-reaching and are undoubtedly going to change the way we live and work. From the employer’s point of view, the need for a safe and resilient workplace will now, more than ever, take precedence over ‘fun’ at the workplace.

Understanding The Enemy: COVID-19 In 2020: 

While we are learning more each day about COVID-19, we know that it belongs to the same family of viruses as the flu and common cold. Both these viruses’ transmission at the workplace and effects have been well-documented in studies involving workplace and disease transmissions. The flu and common cold spread easily in the workplace, even amongst healthy adults. No wonder then, that many employers have been keeping employees from the workplace as much as possible, including encouraging, if not mandating, work-from-home, where possible. 

Will ‘Social Distancing’ and ‘Work-From-Home’ practices fade away? 

While normally cringed upon by many employers, ‘Work-From-Home’ (where possible), has generally been a preferred mode for getting work done away from the workplace. In fact, even after the lockdowns subside, many multi-national companies are contemplating allowing even more employees to continue work from home. On the physical location fronts, and particularly for employees who are needed onsite, current ‘social distancing’ practices may also become a new norm that will survive the lockdown periods.

If social distancing is to become a way of life, employers will have to rethink how their employees’ office space layouts are designed. The pre-COVID-19 practice of cramming more and more people into expensive office spaces has created, what the world now unnervingly realizes, as petri-dish-type conditions, for the virus to thrive. ‘Open office spaces’, where employees were encouraged to congregate in close spaces will likely become obsolete. Rather, maintaining at least a six-foot distance, between work desks, will be the new corporate office space norm. Gone are the days of elbow-to-elbow desk spaces, crowded meeting rooms, huge business conferences, and parties with buffets, crowded elevators, and bustling cafeterias.

Workplace designers and furniture manufacturers will soon be faced with new challenges to make workplaces safer and less of health risk. These changes to the offices and furniture may strike some as mere cosmetic alterations but should be considered essential. Office buildings of the future will feature reconfigured ventilation systems, more robust air filters, and perhaps windows that open to promote air flow. Some companies are even moving their headquarters to new buildings that already have ventilation systems with ceiling-down air flow patterns as opposed to floor-up. Gathering spaces will be redesigned to permit collaboration without the risk of viral transmission. Increased markings on floors, seating areas, and standing areas will aid in managing human traffic and maintain safe physical distances.

Other Changes To Expect In The Office And Supply Rooms:

In addition to rethinking office spaces, companies have been making additional space in their supply rooms, and the ‘office supply’ list has certain grown. Rather than investing in fancy office stationery and efficiency-promoting equipment, the new list of ‘office supplies’ for many employers will now include Thermal Thermometers, Face masks, Gloves, Sanitizers, antiseptic wipes, Sneeze guards, PPE’s, Disinfectants, etc. Furniture at the workplace will have to be made of material that is safe, less hospitable to germs, and easy to clean and sanitize, such as copper, steel, or glass. Workstations may be increasingly separated by transparent or translucent plastic partitions or curtains and adding of plexiglass barriers or tall laminated panels. Cubicles with a see-through glass (also known as ‘sneeze guards’) are most commonly used in banks, and hospitals, railway ticket counters, but could be more widely used in office spaces as well.

Enhanced Surveillance, Safety Training, Health Disclosure At The Workplace:

Promoting safety-driven practices at the workplace will require more than just laminated panels, PPE’s, sanitizers, and chemical disinfectants. It will also require a change in the mindset and behaviour of the employees. The seriousness of the organization’s commitment to the safety will be observed via the dealing with noncompliance. Employees returning to work in the post-lockdown phase, will therefore see top-driven encouragement for living the culture of safety in the workplace.

Organizations may ask employees to undergo medical tests and provide medical fitness certificates before returning to work. Employees might be required to complete a self-health-check declaration form, give details of any contact with a COVID-19-positive patient (including relatives, neighbours, and friends), or even having visited any COVID-19 or quarantined facilities. Some employees may feel such measures to be invasive, which will inevitably spark up the debate over privacy concerns and personal information data-sharing. The employer’s response will likely be that it is the only way to move forward without risking a spike in the infectious virus spread until a vaccine and/or cure are available.

The arrival of COVID – 19 is also taking surveillance to a different level. Technology will aid humans in countering this virus in the form of Thermal Cameras monitoring employees’ temperatures, employee contact-tracing tools, proximity-measuring tools, etc. PWC LLP, for eg.,is preparing to launch a phone app for employers that traces contacts by analysing workers’ interactions in the office. Workplace HR professionals can easily log into a web portal to determine which other employees could be at risk, based on their proximity to that worker in a given time period.

Health And Safety Revamped: Employee Education And Changing ‘Dress Codes’ for the Office:

Before employees return to their workplace, employers will also need to inform and educate their staff of the enhanced workplace health and safety rules. These trainings can be achieved via webinars or e-learning modules before employees join the workplace or can be done physically on their first day of returning to work. While specific guidelines may vary, best practices at the workplace may universally include providing hand sanitizers and masks, mandatorily wearing facemasks whilst at work, including the correct way of wearing a mask and (e.g., not pulled down to their chin). Face mask, gloves, and Plexiglas visors will soon be the new corporate dress code that everyone will have to adhere to. 

Physical distancing means longer queues for riding in elevators and office transportation, markers on the floor to direct foot traffic, staggered shift timings to avoid crowding, temperatures being taken on entry at the workplace, avoiding handshakes, sanitation of hands on using biometric sensors, intense sanitization and disinfection procedures at workplace, and social distancing during lunch/ coffee breaks. 

While it would be ‘safe’ to say the above safety measures will likely be universally implemented, the question is whether any of the changes contemplated will actually result in a safer working environment. With enhancements like those described above, the old saying about working ‘hand in glove’ in the post-pandemic era will change to ‘A Sanitized Hand In a Protective Glove!’

About By Er. Dinshah A. Anklesvaria

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