Best practices for returning safely to in-office work

Nearly half of all American adults have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and many Realtor Associations are itching to get their employees back to in-person work. Nothing can beat the collaboration and innovation opportunities created by face-to-face interaction, and after a year of remote work, many employers are formulating plans for how to get their employees back on site and in person.

The biggest question on Association executives’ minds: How can we do this in a way that keeps everybody safe – including employees, vendors and customers? Rick Grimaldi tackles this and other questions in his book titled, “FLEX: A Leader’s Guide to Staying Nimble and Mastering Transformative Change in the American Workplace.”

“Everybody is eager for things to get back to normal as soon as possible,” Grimaldi said. “The only way to get back to business as usual is by planning ahead now, and taking all the steps necessary to make your workplace as safe as possible for everyone.”

Here are some best practices to keep in mind as your Association office reopens.

First, decide whether some, most or all of your employees will stay remote. If your organization allowed employees to work from home during the pandemic, you and your workforce could be inclined to keep at least some employees remote. After all, some roles are conducive to remote work, and many employees have shown that productivity does not suffer when they work virtually.

Next, decide who will come back, and when. Make a plan to stagger schedules and shifts to help workers come back as safely as possible. Establish a process that can be carried out while providing maximum safety, fairness, and consistency for all.

“Be sure to communicate the staggering process thoroughly and share with everyone how decisions have been made,” Grimaldi said. “Effective communication helps ensure people know and understand that the process is fair.”

Comply with established safety guide-lines to help workers come back safely. As employees return to the workplace, your main objective should be protecting them from COVID-19. To ensure that you are complying with established safety practices, check out government-sanctioned guidelines. Some of these include:

  • Provide hand sanitizer
  • Encourage frequent handwashing
  • Provide masks and other PPE, such as gloves or face shields
  • Set workspaces farther apart, if possible
  • Screen employees for symptoms
  • Tell people not to come in to work if they have any illness
  • Stagger shifts/start times/break times
  • Divide staff into groups/bubbles and rotating attendance
  • Increase cleaning of high-touch points, such as door handles, equipment, etc.
  • Use portable HEPA filtration systems and increase the air exchanges in your HVAC system
  • Limit capacity in break rooms, conference rooms, restrooms and elevators

“Make sure to fully narrate the safety steps you’re taking,” Grimaldi said. “This lets them know you are serious about protecting everyone.”

Train managers and employees on the new protocols put into place. Grimaldi suggests holding virtual meetings about safety protocols before employees return to work. Use a team approach so that everyone works together to ensure continued safety.

“Once workers are back in the workplace, post plenty of signs reminding them of safety protocols,” Grimaldi said. “Also, make sure employees understand they have a federally protected right to speak up about workplace hazards without fear of retaliation. Supervisors who are knowledgeable about company sanitation processes put employees at ease and instill confidence that the workplace is safe.”

Require employees to stay home if they have COVID symptoms. Tell your workers not to come in if they experience fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or any other symptoms.

Organize a vaccine committee. Equally as important as providing a safe workplace is ensuring that as many employees are vaccinated as possible. If you haven’t yet done any work in this area, a good first step may be convening a committee to help develop and suggest recommendations for your business. The committee should either be composed of or receive input from human resources, legal, workplace safety and other personnel who are in the best position to develop effective strategies while considering all relevant angles. Education is absolutely critical with respect to vaccine programs, and your committee should prepare materials to share with employees.

“This committee can serve as a point of contact for the company program and assist in implementing the plan development and the rollout,” Grimaldi said. “It can also assist in educating employees about the vaccine rollout and can offer direction on how to sign up for the vaccine.”

Decide whether or not your company will mandate the vaccine. You can choose to require that employees and associated independent contractors get the vaccine as a condition of working as long as you honor federal anti-discrimination laws, Grimaldi said. In fact, many employers have been mandating or incentivizing employees to get the flu vaccine for years. However, not many organizations are taking this route when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine. According to a Fisher Phillips Flash Survey tallying information from 700 employers, only 9% of respondents said they were considering requiring employees to take the vaccine as a condition of employment. If you do decide to make the vaccine mandatory, you must take into consideration those who object for religious or health reasons. 

Most employers would prefer to find a way to encourage their associates to get vaccinated. Before implementing any incentive program, consider, at minimum, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and, depending on the nature of the incentive, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). You will also need to consider any related state or local laws that may apply in your jurisdiction.

Be prepared for some employees to choose not to be vaccinated for health or other reasons. Some of your employees may provide a doctor’s note indicating a health risk of taking the vaccine, such as allergies. In such cases, the employer might need to talk with that employee about what else, if anything, might be done to get back to work safely.

“Not only is this the law, but any good employer will want to do this as a matter of creating good employee relationships,” Grimaldi said. “We should not ever lose sight of the practical insight of all of this!”

Remember that employees have rights under the ADA. Again, to protect yourself from lawsuits, you should always be prepared to engage in the interactive process with medically fragile employees in a good-faith effort to find a reasonable accommodation that will allow the employee to perform the essential job functions. An employee who has a legitimate health or religious objection to getting the vaccine and is the victim of discrimination may have a legal cause of action against the employer.

All that said, some employees may resist returning to work because they do not feel it is safe. This is a tricky subject, Grimaldi notes. But at some point, just feeling unsafe—assuming the employer is doing everything possible to make the workplace safe—will not exempt employees from performing typical, expected job functions. “No doubt about it, bringing people back safely is a significant challenge,” Grimaldi said. “But it is a challenge you can feel good about facing head on. Your compliance to government recommendations, as well as your transparency, frequent communication, and empathy for what your employees are feeling reminds them that you are doing everything in your power to keep them comfortable and protect them from COVID-19. And in doing so, you’re not just protecting them, you’re also protecting the lives of everyone in your community.”