No more working from home: but how can we feel safe at work again?

Since 1 September, teleworking is no longer recommended. For many employees, this means a return to the workplace after more than a year of (mainly) working from home. But of course, this has been accompanied by mixed feelings because, despite the high vaccination rate, the corona virus is far from being conquered. And increased contact between colleagues can lead to tensions or confusion. What is the best way to deal with this while continuing to monitor the safety and well-being of everyone at work? A few tips.

Teleworking was mandatory in many organisations for months. Although it has not been mandatory to work from home since 1 September, there is (still) residual fear caused by what happened. How do you, as an employer, organise the return to the workplace while paying attention to the physical and mental well-being of your employees?

1. Physical well-being: keep the health risks as low as possible

Flanders and Wallonia have achieved high vaccination coverage. Several studies have already shown that the vaccines provide sufficient protection against the most severe symptoms of COVID-19. Vaccinated employees have basically less risk of ending up in hospital if they become infected. But despite the successful vaccination campaign, the risks have not disappeared completely. So the message is that you need to be careful.

First and foremost, make sure there is sufficient clarity concerning the applicable hygiene measures and the prescribed prevention measures. Despite the relaxation of the rules in the public domain, the generic guidelines remain applicable to the workplace, and there may even be specific guidelines for your sector. Therefore, always ensure all your employees are aware of the measures and that they comply with them. This step-by-step plan is a useful starting point.

An essential part of prevention is thorough ventilation of the workplace. This webinar contains instructions about how to correctly monitor the CO2 concentration in the workplace and evaluate the results. What you are absolutely not allowed to do is ask employees if they have been vaccinated and base any consequences on their answer. After all, you are not allowed to discriminate against employees. What you can do is continue to raise awareness among employees in order to guarantee safety in the workplace.

Why are the rules in the workplace stricter than outside?

As an employer, you are responsible for providing a safe working environment. This comes from the employment agreement you entered into with your employees. Protecting your employees against COVID-19 is a part of that. The same employment agreement also obliges your employees to come to work. Going to a festival, café or restaurant is a free choice. Hence, different rules apply in those contexts. Some people cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. The workplace must be a safe place for them too. They can choose not to visit riskier places during their spare time.

2. Mental well-being: motivate your employees

 

Recent research by engineering firm McKinsey & Company shows not everyone is eager to return to the office (yet). Some employees are scared of falling ill and maybe infecting their friends and family. Others fear coming into contact with unvaccinated colleagues. This means working from home is still regarded as “the safe option” for some. Therefore, it remains important to continue to limit the risks in the workplace, even if there is a chance corona fatigue will occur. Reiterate to your staff that they can contact the internal confidential counsellor or the external psychosocial prevention advisor for a confidential conversation if they so desire.

Koen Van Hulst, head of psychosocial aspects: “It is important to keep employees motivated. To maintain the motivation for upholding corona measures, two things are very important. First, the recognition that it’s hard to keep up with everything right now and that we’re all just tired of it. Second, to provide perspective by reiterating that the end of the tunnel is in sight, even though we can’t say exactly how far it is. How are you evolving your working methods as an organisation? What does the new reality look like for you? There is no need to wait: letting everyone know that you are working on these aspects as an organisation can already boost motivation significantly.”

Have you seen tensions rise because certain employees refuse to be vaccinated? Emphasise the importance of connection and respect for personal choices. Koen Van Hulst: “Self-determination theory has connectedness as a strong motivator. Every employee needs a connection with colleagues and the organisation. By pointing out that we can only come together and work as a team again if we also respect each other and each other’s choices, you touch on an intrinsic need. Give respect to get respect. By giving teams a say, and looking at how work can be done in the office together, you involve everyone and create positive involvement.”

3. Is corona a permanent risk?

Will there be another corona version? “Corona will not disappear,” explains Marie-Noëlle Schmickler, director of medical supervision. “We may be evolving towards an epidemic situation in which corona rears its head every year like the flu, but without putting social life on hold. Vaccination of risk groups remains important. There is also a chance we may have to start wearing mouth masks again, especially in the workplace. In the long term, the slightest cough, runny nose or sore throat should not necessarily be a reason to go into isolation provided the sick person is willing to consistently wear a mouth mask to avoid infecting others.”

Do you want to work safely and remain healthy during corona times?

You’ll find frequently asked questions with their answers, helpful resources and other support for a safe return to the office on https://www.mensura.be/en/corona-at-work.