As COVID-19 vaccinations continue to roll out, organizations across industries prepare to return employees to the workplace. It’s a journey fraught with anxieties, uncertainty, and unknowns. In a recent poll of Appian webinar participants, a mere 17% reported that their companies feel fully prepared to reopen facilities, and only 51% said they felt even “somewhat” prepared.
The good news is that a safe return to the workplace is not uncharted territory. Some companies have already successfully brought employees back onsite, gaining valuable lessons along the way. We also have over a year of wisdom from frontline experts on staying healthy and productive.
Appian recently brought together a panel of leading doctors from George Washington University for a webinar, Beyond Vaccinations: Charting a Path to Tomorrow’s Workplace. They listed five essential considerations for maintaining a safe and productive workplace, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
1. Set realistic vaccination expectations.
While vaccine availability and declining case rates in many areas are understandable causes for optimism, it’s important for companies to be realistic in their expectations when returning employees to work.
For starters, don’t assume that everyone who comes back to the workplace will be vaccinated. “Expect to return to a partially vaccinated workplace, which means it's going to be a very dynamic environment over the next few months as guidance evolves around how people should behave with other vaccinated people and other non-vaccinated individuals,” said Dr. Neal Sikka, a professor and practicing emergency physician at George Washington University.
Even in the long-term, companies shouldn’t count on 100% workforce vaccination. But they can play a part in the vaccination ecosystem by providing accurate information about COVID-19 vaccines and directing employees to local resources
Our webinar panelists also encouraged companies to look at the larger health and safety picture. “When we think of the workplace as a place where wellness is maintained, it is not just going to be about whether people are vaccinated or not, but [about] a more holistic understanding of the workplace as a place where wellness is promoted,” said Dr. Tenagne Haile-Mariam, the medical director for George Washington University’s COVID-19 reopening support service.
2. Clear the air—and safeguard other physical spaces.
With an airborne disease like COVID-19, ventilation is key to mitigating its spread. For this reason, companies are considering how people onsite move through the physical space of their facilities. Implement measures like occupancy limits in common areas like conference and break rooms and in smaller spaces like bathrooms and elevators, as well as social distancing among desks and other working areas.
All of these are money well spent in both the short- and long-term.
“Look at the health of your workforce as an asset. Think of it as your investment as having some type of ROI,” said Dr. Sikka. “Really think about the physical space...look at how the makeup of your building might keep people even more active and healthy in general.”
3. Implement health and safety protocols.
In our poll of webinar attendees, this was the biggest return-to-work priority. Beyond the obvious direct benefits to employee health and safety, such protocols are also important for morale during this pivotal time. “Employees really need to gain from their employer a peace of mind that all of these types of things have been thought through and that there are plans in place to keep them safe,” said Dr. Sikka.
When crafting COVID-19 health and safety protocols, consider the rules that govern:
Communicating these guidelines frequently and clearly across your organization will be key to success. “Employees need really clear direction related to what those reopening health and safety protocols are going to be,” said Dr. Sikka.
Consider these protocols a foundation for wider cultural change. Dr. James Phillips, who is Section Chief of Disaster and Operational Medicine at George Washington University Hospital’s Department of Emergency Medicine, said that he expects people to continue to use what they’ve learned this year, every year.
“Come cold and flu season, it’s going to be mask season. It’s going to be hand-washing season. If these measures become part of our culture, it will have a major impact in our health system,” Dr. Phillips said.
4. Continue to encourage testing and track results.
Even with the most stringent, comprehensive health and safety measures, some employees will still get sick. Companies must prepare to respond to any and all scenarios, including a positive COVID-19 test.
While health and safety protocols will provide guidance in areas like when employees are required to self-isolate at home, technology is the other part of the equation in preventing a workforce outbreak. A workforce safety solution, for example, can set into motion the actions needed for contact tracing and case management. Such a system can help you:
5. Conscientiously leverage data for a complete health and safety picture.
The insights gleaned from a workforce safety solution can give companies a strong foundation for understanding overall workforce health, particularly when combined with the safety, injury, and exposure information they’re already collecting for regulatory compliance.
It’s all about compiling a comprehensive health and safety picture. Just as municipalities use citizen reports for problems like potholes to identify areas in need of repair, companies can use data collected in their COVID-19 response efforts to identify workplace vulnerabilities. This may include facility occupancy figures, cleaning schedules and audits, voluntary self-reported health information, and more.
When collecting employee personal health data:
Overall, create a culture so people understand the benefits of sharing their information and adopting these measures, not just for themselves but for the whole organization moving forward.
While this is probably not the last outbreak the world will experience, preparation—through health and safety protocols, testing and surveillance systems, and workforce safety applications—can make us all stronger now, and in our future responses.