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How to Protect Employees Returning Amid COVID-19

As companies work to return to normalcy during a global pandemic, it’s important to take steps to protect your current — and future — workers. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

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As local governments around the world start to ease restrictions aimed to reduce the spread of COVID-19, you may be considering a return to work for yourself and your employees. To be sure, many other employers are doing the same.

Nations like Germany, New Zealand, and South Korea have all begun to reopen businesses, schools, and internal travel in recent weeks. In the United States, all 50 states have started some form of reopening, though capacity restrictions and social distancing guidelines remain in place in many areas.

While the world begins the return to work, it’s essential to recognize that you’re not going “back to normal.” Protecting your current and future workers as they adjust to the new normal is critical. As you finalize your company’s return-to-work plan, incorporate these four strategies to protect your current — and future — workers.

1. Encourage physical safety.

Your employees’ physical safety should be your No. 1 priority when considering how to reopen your workplace. If the space is large enough, promote social distancing by spacing work stations at least 6 feet apart. Providing masks for your employees to wear while they’re working can help them protect one another, especially when social distancing isn’t possible.

There are other precautions you should take beyond protecting employees’ work stations, of course. You’ll need to provide plenty of hand soap, single-use tissues and towels, and hand sanitizer throughout your workplace so employees can keep their hands and surfaces clean. Depending on your industry, you may also need to provide additional personal protective equipment, or PPE, such as face shields or gloves. Be sure to follow guidance from the CDCOSHA, and your local government when planning to reopen.

2. Promote mental well-being.

While physical safety is paramount, it’s important to remember that the mental well-being of employees also matters. Living life amid a global pandemic is stressful, and it can be especially so for people required to return to their workplaces. Many people have reported their mental health has worsened due to the pandemic, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey. With that in mind, any return-to-work plan must include information for managers on how to promote mental health among employees.

Inform managers at every level of your organization what mental health benefits you provide so they can pass those details along to employees. Train them to communicate with employees early and often about company updates, and encourage them to maintain open discussions with employees about how things are going. Managers must take a more individualized approach to their work by offering flexibility, redefining productivity, and increasing support for employees struggling with the stress of reopening.

3. Increase workplace flexibility.

Speaking of flexibility, now is the time to offer as much as you can in as many areas as you can. Increasing your organization’s flexibility when it comes to how, where, and when your employees work is a strategy that will help you address both their physical and mental health. If your employees don’t need to return to the office to work, for example, letting them continue to work remotely can reduce their risk of becoming ill as well as any stress associated with in-person work.

If it’s necessary to bring employees back to the workplace, you can still offer flexibility by bringing them back in shifts to avoid everyone being inside the building at once. You could also consider only requiring certain essential personnel to return to work. Additionally, consider building in more flexible time-off allowances to encourage employees experiencing symptoms to stay home and to support anyone who does become ill and thus cannot return to work.

4. Adjust your recruitment strategy with safety in mind.

Finally, if your business plan includes recruiting and hiring in the future, it’s important to remember that your recruitment strategy will need to change in light of the pandemic. Instead of networking via conferences or in-person events, you’ll need to pivot to digital campaigns. And once you’re in the interview phase, you’ll likely be conducting virtual meetings — but you can make them more engaging than a typical video chat.

“If the position a firm is hiring for is not a remote job, it’s essential to bring the applicant’s role to life — especially if tours or seeing the worksite are not possible due to outside visitor safety concerns,” says Todd Bavol, CEO of recruiting and staffing firm Integrity Staffing Solutions. “Sharing culture is also essential. If a hiring team generally chats with a candidate over lunch, find out their favorite local restaurant and send them lunch so you can ‘dine’ together while you have your video interview.”

Now more than ever, we all need to do our part in looking out for one another. As a business leader, you have a prime opportunity to do that when it comes to making plans to return to somewhat normal operations. If you truly commit to protecting your employees’ mental and physical health through proper precautions and flexibility, you’ll be able to make a meaningful difference in their lives.

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