Back to the workplace: working together again safely

Since 1 September, we can return to work after more than a year of working at home.  No easy task, because the corona virus is far from defeated. How to organise the work while safeguarding the safety and well-being of employees and clients? A practical step-by-step plan.

Employers and employees are facing a challenging time. As of 9 June, we will be returning to the office once a week. And starting 1 July, we are no longer required to work remotely at all. But the fact that measures are being lifted, does not mean things will go back to the way they were. Organisations will be taking phased and flexible steps in the six to nine months ahead, towards a way of working that will involve more (close) contact between colleagues who have been required to work from home for a considerable time. In spite of the accelerating vaccination campaign, the risks have not disappeared just yet. New variants of the virus are circulating and the longevity of current vaccines or natural immunity are presently unclear.

Meanwhile, there will also be a noticeable psychosocial impact. Not everyone feels comfortable (just yet) to meet colleagues again, take the train or bus, etcetera. In a separate blog post, we will list some tips for offering the necessary mental support.

The step-by-step plan below will help you make the most important preparations. You will find additional information about being corona-proof at work in our general guide .

Step 1: prepare for your employees’ return to work

Create a smart schedule
It may sound self-evident, but it is far from it in practice: having employees return to the workplace safely, can only be done with a well-considered schedule. Working in stages – e.g. spreading returning employees over multiple days of the week – will give you time to monitor the impact and adjust course where necessary.

Keep in mind that you cannot force anyone to return until 1 July. And in the present circumstances, you cannot associate any positive or negative consequence with someone’s appearance at the office or lack thereof. As of 1 July, working from home is no longer mandatory and as an employer, you are free to establish your own work schedule.
 

Communicate clearly and regularly
Measures to prevent viral spread may not be negatively impacted by the number of employees at the office. Be very clear about the instructions that the employees need to adhere to. Irrespective of their vaccination status or test results, all employees must:

  • keep observing the principles of social distancing
  • Adhere to the hygiene measures
  • Wear a face mask correctly, where necessary
  • Respect the corona measures, also during lunch or coffee breaks and upon arrival and departure.

Consider revisiting the fire and evacuation instructions or first aid guidelines. Adjusted rules may apply in view of the corona measures.

The importance of communication should not be underestimated: it is the key to success. Provide your employees with a sense of security and trust by informing them about the applicable agreements on a regular basis.  Communicate transparently about things that are still uncertain or unclear and make sure you hear their concerns, if any.
 

Give commuting advice
Many employees will experience their return to the workplace as a considerable adjustment. Be lenient if the schedule isn’t implemented perfectly over the first couple of weeks.

Give employees tips on their use of public transportation. For example, provide an adjusted work schedule to prevent everyone from taking the train, tram or bus during rush hour. Carpooling is not recommended during these times. Bicycle traffic should be encouraged (as always).

Step 2: Is the workplace in order?

Ensure good ventilation
To counter the spread of the corona virus, the European Association for Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (REHVA) has published guidelines for the correct maintenance and use of HVAC installations. Here is a summary of the most important tips.


Provide soap and water and/or alcohol-based sanitiser
Provide sufficient quantities of soap (preferably in soap dispensers) paper towels and closable bins, if possible with pedal control. If the workplace is too far away from the washing facility, provide an alcohol-based hand sanitiser.


Put up instructions in a properly visible location
Use posters and signalling at the workplace to remind employees of the applicable measures:

Ensure regular cleaning
Facing reduced occupancy, many companies will have turned their cleaning regimen down a notch. As more colleagues are returning to the workplace, the time has come to return to a more frequent cleaning regimen.

When cleaning, absolute priority is to be given to surfaces, door handles, switches, telephones, printers, coffee machines, keyboards, and so on. Workpieces and work equipment used by several employees must be cleaned and disinfected at least once at every shift change.

Step 3: Be attentive to the health of your staff

Pay attention to symptoms of illness
Symptoms of illness are an important indicator of a potential infection. This decision tree depicts the steps for you to take. Once an employee tests positive, the contact-tracing process begins. This brochure summarises what measures need to be taken.

Specific rules apply to rapid tests and self tests.

Vaccination remains a free choice, but you can make the decision-making process easier by providing your employees with scientifically correct information. Use our FAQ and poster.
 

Offer mental support
These tips will help you, as an employer, alleviate a lot of pressure.

Staff who are mentally troubled (e.g. stress, workload, work-life combination, etc.), experience anxiety or are mourning the loss of a loved one  can count on our psychologists for a confidential conversation during office hours.

Step 4: Implement a hybrid way of working

Do not abolish remote work
The corona crisis acted as a catalyst for remote work. A step-by-step reduction of mandatory remote work doesn’t have to mark the end of the working from home situation altogether. In addition to potential risks, such as team-out, the system has some benefits to offer. Many organisations are likely to move towards a hybrid system: structural remote work for one or several days combined with working from the office. A great idea, as long as it is organised properly.