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Handling COVID-19 in the Workplace: 3 Lessons from the Frontlines

Michelle Gardner, Appian
February 17, 2021

After nearly a year of dealing with COVID-19, organizations like yours have learned a lot of lessons. Lessons you didn't ask for, and maybe never wanted to learn. But important lessons that help you protect employees as you get back to onsite work, whenever that may be.

Read on for three key takeaways from companies handling COVID-19 cases in the workplace, from the best way to manage contact tracing to the importance of establishing a single response hub.

Lesson 1: Why Automated Contact Tracing Falls Short

Contact tracing refers to identifying people who may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19. It is a crucial part of maintaining a safe workplace.

"Many public health agencies are woefully unprepared to facilitate contact tracing," writes Forrester in a recent report, Operationalize Your Return-To-Work Strategy: The Technology You Need, "Employers must fill this gap by establishing programs to identify and notify employees who have been in close proximity to coworkers with COVID-19 and test and isolate affected employees."

Two approaches to contact tracing have emerged to manage COVID-19 in the workplace. Automated contact-tracing tools leverage Wi-Fi, GPS, or Bluetooth to track employees' locations. On the other hand, manual solutions support self-reporting from the sick employee and their coworkers about any potential exposures.

An automated approach may sound appealing. But in practice, proximity-based contact tracing tools have proved unreliable. A person with COVID-19 might come within six feet of dozens or even hundreds of people over the course of a few days, but if those interactions are just a few minutes or less, if they happen outside, or if both parties are wearing masks, the risks of transmitting the virus are low. And proximity-based tools don't account for office walls. This leads to vast amounts of useless data, to false positives, and wasted resources. What's more, employees often see these solutions as overly intrusive, which hinders adoption.

Contact tracing requires a more sophisticated approach not just a ringing alarm every time you may have come near the virus. At its core, the act of tracing virus exposures is case management. It requires creating a case, assigning owners, listing tasks, and managing a complete process. Manual contact tracing tools that rely on case management have proven to be more accurate than proximity tools. They also encourage consistent participation across your workforce.

Lesson 2: Evolve Legacy Systems to Protect Your Workforce

Bexley Health Neighbourhood Care GP Federation (BHNC), a division of the National Health Service (NHS), coordinates care and services in South East London across 600 staff, over 240,000 patients, and a number of care sites, including three temporary sites to help COVID-19 patients.

Like many healthcare organizations, at the start of the pandemic, BHNC grappled with several operational challenges from its legacy systems and paper-based processes. Inefficient, manual processes made it difficult to safeguard staff, which in turn impacted patient outcomes. Slow and inaccurate reporting magnified these problems, contributing to lagging response times and avoidable service outages. These issues existed before the COVID-19 crises and were only exacerbated by the pandemic, putting unnecessary strain on the entire organization.

BHNC needed better visibility across the organization to allocate resources, manage incidents, and plan capacity across facilities. With Appian Workforce Safety, they now have a real-time operational dashboard that protects frontline workers and gives visibility into patient volumes and the status of critical services.

Lesson 3: A Single Response Hub for Employees and Visitors

Workplaces are complex systems. If you fail to think through every aspect upfront, you could end up cobbling together processes on the fly or scrambling to stop one positive COVID-19 test from becoming an outbreak.

One large insurance company with over 15,000 workers worldwide found that having one command center and a single cohesive plan for everyone is crucial to success. Employees, vendors, visitors, and even employees who plan to visit other workplaces all use the same workforce safety software.

According to a recent report from Deep Analysis: "The company's single biggest lesson learned was to develop one plan for returning to the workplace and have a single point of communication to the entire workforce."

A single, centralized response hub that can be used by everyone including visitors, contractors, and maintenance staff is crucial. Anyone who will be onsite should have access to the same system to submit and update personal health and risk data, so you stay in compliance with local regulations and corporate policies.

How toProtect Your Workforce withIncident Case Management

Don't let COVID-19 incidents derail your workplace. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends using case management to respond to COVID-19 in the workplace. Case management solutions help companies handle dynamic, unpredictable situations which makes it a perfect fit for handling the pandemic.

Discover the three ways case management helps safeguard your workforce from COVID-19 and other health crises in the eBook: Reopening Is Just the Beginning: Protect Your Workforce with Incident Case Management.