In April 2020, the Brookings Institution reported that due to COVID-19, “up to half of Americans are currently working from home, more than double the fraction who worked from home (at least occasionally)” in 2017-2018. While the pandemic is fast-tracking the telecommuting trend, for some employers it’s a short-term fix until the pandemic starts to level off.
With the pandemic being a national emergency that involves an infectious disease, you must take precautions when recalling your employees to the work site. Here are four suggestions.
1. Check your state’s position on reopening your work site.
If your employees are under a stay-at-home or shelter-in-place state order, you’ll need to determine the status of the mandate. If the state is in the midst of phasing out the order, it likely has a timeline for when nonessential businesses can reopen, which could vary by industry.
Even if the order is lifted, there are likely federal, state or local requirements, and you’ll need to figure out which ones are mandatory and which ones are recommended.
2. Be prepared to answer employees’ questions.
Whether your employees were compelled to stay at home because of a government order or a voluntary company policy, they will have concerns about returning to the work site. They may want to know:
- Whether they have to come back, and why they can’t just keep working from home.
- How you will help keep them safe from exposure to the disease.
- What will happen if they contract the disease after returning to the workplace.
- What will happen if a family member is sick with the disease and they have to care for him or her.
- Whether testing for the disease will be conducted at the workplace.
- Whether their personal health information will remain confidential.
To appropriately address these concerns, consult with your legal team.
3. Establish workplace safety protocols.
This is critical to curbing the spread of the disease and mitigating employees’ fear of returning to the work site. Because each workplace is unique, safety solutions may differ by company. But there are some general guidelines you can follow, including those issued by federal agencies — such as the CDC and OSHA — and state or local agencies.
Employers can increase safety by staggering shifts and holding meetings via videoconferencing. For example, a video meeting for managers can be done with each manager remaining in his or her office.
4. Have a complete plan for returning telecommuters to the work site.
Get with stakeholders — including your managers, human resources team and legal experts — to develop a comprehensive plan for bringing your telecommuters back to the workplace. The strategy should include:
- Employee health and safety.
- Protocols for suspected or confirmed exposure to the disease.
- Communications with employees for returning to the workplace.
- Any changes in your employment policies and procedures.
The plan should also say what to do about employees who refuse to come back to the work site. The rules are subtle and complicated — and frequently changing. So see if you can work out a compromise, and don’t make decisions without legal counsel.
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