You commute to work listening to updates on the spread of the new coronavirus. More people quarantined, more schools shut down, more deaths recorded, and more areas impacted.
You’re trying to keep a level head and not panic, doing as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) advises by practicing good hygiene: washing your hands, not touching your face, frequently cleaning surfaces you come into contact with, and coughing or sneezing into a tissue and immediately throwing it away (followed by washing your hands again).
But then you enter your shared office to find your officemate in the midst of a coughing fit. You go to use the restroom and watch another one of your coworkers lightly rinse their hands under the water, no soap, before exiting. You come back to an email about a mandatory meeting in the cramped conference room for all employees, which you read as your officemate coughs once more.
How do you react? What can you do?
While you might already have a pretty good sense of best practices around prevention, you may be struggling with the logistics and interpersonal concerns (read: awkward situations) associated with working in the midst of a near-pandemic.
That’s why we’re here to answer your pressing questions about navigating work during this global health emergency.
What If My Company Hasn’t Shared a Policy or Plan?
Sara Axelbaum is the global head of inclusion and diversity at MiQ, a marketing intelligence corporation with offices around the world. Part of her role is ensuring people feel safe at work. A formal corporate policy—like the one Axelbaum recently helped develop for her company—is the most important way to protect employees at this time, she says.
“It is up to companies to do everything they can to protect their workers, not just for obvious health reasons but also for the health of their business. It won’t be good for anyone if an entire company is quarantined,” she explains.
If your company hasn’t yet started sharing information about how they plan to address coronavirus concerns, Axelbaum says it’s time to ask. “I think it is absolutely fair to go to HR or management and say that other companies are disseminating their policies for this pandemic and you would like to know what they are planning to communicate.”
Don’t be afraid of rocking the boat. Asking for more information is as simple as sending a brief email to HR (or in a very small company, your boss or office manager) that says: “I’ve been watching the news and I know some companies are coming up with plans for how to prevent the spread of coronavirus—policies for handwashing, staying home when ill, and even working from home if it comes to that. Are we creating similar policies and plans? And if so, when will those be communicated to employees?”
You are well within your rights to ask for this information—as well as for periodic updates—and your HR team will hopefully tell you they are working on it and will be releasing more information shortly. If not, you might help spur them to start formulating those plans or to reassess and send out an update.
“Your coworkers will be grateful that you stepped up to ask for what they all benefit from,” Axelbaum says. “Just don’t assume someone else will do it. They are probably assuming the same thing.”
What If My Coworker Appears to Be Sick?
A sick coworker is a concern no matter what, but this is especially true if you’re working in tight quarters while a highly contagious virus is spreading around the world.
“The best way a company can support their employees during this time is to remind everyone about keeping their fellow coworkers healthy,” Axelbaum says. To that end, MiQ has provided employees with the guidelines for hygiene and hand washing, stocked up on hand sanitizer, stepped up their efforts to keep the offices clean, and emphasized that any employee who feels sick should stay home.
But what if your company hasn’t communicated the same commitment? Or what if they have and your colleagues don’t seem to be following the recommendations? How do you deal with a coworker coughing all over the office?
If you’re close to this coworker, it’s possible you could approach them yourself and suggest they head home until they feel better. But if that’s not an option, it’s perfectly acceptable to express your concerns to your supervisor or HR team. You could simply say, “I know John is working hard, but it seems like he’s not feeling very well. Is it possible to ask him to work from home until he’s no longer running a fever or coughing? I’m concerned about him infecting others in the office.”
These can feel like awkward conversations to have. But it’s the job of leadership and HR teams to provide a safe work environment to all employees—and they’re trained to address thorny issues like these.
What If My Coworkers Aren’t Washing Their Hands Properly?
It’s never fun to realize someone you interact with on the regular tends to be a little lax with handwashing, but it’s even more concerning with coronavirus on the run. So how should you respond if you catch a coworker skipping out on the soap?
“Once a company has set forth the policy for expectations, everyone should be expected to follow the policy as one would any company-wide protocol,” Axelbaum says. “Should anyone have a concern about an employee not following any code of conduct, it should be reported to a manager or HR.”
Which again means your first step should be asking HR about a policy if one hasn’t already been established. But you can also bring up your specific concerns.
Don’t embarrass your coworker by gossiping about their lack of handwashing with anyone outside of HR, and there’s no need to start a paper trail by sending an email. Instead, bring the issue directly to the attention of your human resources rep by knocking on their door and asking if they have a minute to talk (or, if you’re all in an open office, by asking if they have a minute to step into a conference room).
Explain that you don’t want to get anyone in trouble or cause anyone embarrassment, but that you’ve noticed your coworker demonstrating a concerning lack of hygiene and you’re worried about the safety of others in the office as a result. You can request to have your complaint kept anonymous so that your coworker never knows who brought the concern to HR.
Is It OK to Avoid Shaking Hands? How Do I Do That Politely?
Handshaking has long been a customary greeting in the United States, especially in business settings. But given how frequently people touch their noses and mouths, even when they know they shouldn’t, and considering how inadequately they may be washing their hands, even if they’re trying to be better—the potential for disease transmission probably isn’t worth the risk right now. (In fact, many companies—The Muse included!—have made their offices officially no-handshake zones.)
“There will be moments of awkwardness, but I believe it is important to start a trend of alternatives,” Axelbaum says. “There are many options such as fist bumps, elbow taps, foot shakes, and, my favorite and safest method, the jazz hands greeting.”
Introducing these substitutes for hand shaking is as easy as approaching someone a little more slowly and saying, “Can we [do your favorite greeting] instead of shaking hands?” And, Axelbaum says, “Chances are the person on the other side of the would-be handshake will be happy you opted for an alternative.”
What About Work Travel?
Many corporations are suspending non-essential business travel to international and even domestic locations for the time being, and most are working to address employee concerns about travel where they can. So if you’re worried about the safety of upcoming work travel, bring those concerns to your boss or management team and see what they say.
If, for example, you’d prefer to cancel or postpone an upcoming trip, do some prep work so that you can bring suggestions for how to accomplish the same objectives from afar or adjust timelines and expectations.
You may find your organization has left the decision of whether or not to travel in your hands. Whether it’s up to you or someone else, if you might be going ahead with a trip, you can inquire about safety measures being taken and what the plan is if you are unexpectedly quarantined or contract the virus yourself while traveling on business. For instance, will your company pay for your extended accommodations? Or cover your medical costs if you fall ill while traveling? These are fair questions to ask.
How Do I Tell My Company if I Think I’ve Been Exposed?
While no one wants to get sick right now, the good news is the symptoms of COVID-19 (the illness caused by the new coronavirus) are relatively minor for the vast majority of people. Some may not even get sick at all.
But that’s also why it’s important to take exposure into consideration, not just symptoms. If you’ve been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, your doctor or local health department may recommend self-quarantine and monitoring depending on your level of risk.
That means you might end up needing to stay home from work for two weeks—information you obviously need to communicate to your management team.
If your company has set out instructions around who to reach out to and how, follow those guidelines. But in general, this is an issue you should address both over the phone and in writing. Start by reaching out to your direct supervisor—give them a call or send them a message first asking them to hop on a call if you feel more comfortable that way—to inform them of your exposure and agree on next steps. Then follow up with an email to your supervisor and HR team reiterating what you discussed on the phone.
What If I Have to—or Want to—Start Working Remotely at Some Point?
While working remotely simply isn’t an option in every line of businesses, companies (and employees) that can make it work should be seriously considering and embracing the opportunity to do so now.
“At MiQ, we reminded employees not to come in if they are sick and reinforced that we are able to work remotely for any reason,” Axelbaum explains. But not all employers have communicated such a blanket work-from-home policy. If you don’t know where your organization stands on this option, it’s time to ask. That’s especially important if you are in a high-risk group—you’re an older adult, you have a serious chronic health condition, or you’re immunosuppressed—or even if you live with someone in a high-risk group.
Remember that you can reach out to your supervisor and request to work remotely even if your company hasn’t set a policy encouraging or requiring everyone to do so. Try saying something like: “While the company hasn’t decided to have us all work remotely as of yet, I would feel more comfortable doing so. Can we discuss what that could look like?”
When you broach the possibility, establish what you’d need to be successful working from home. For instance, is IT able to plug you into shared office drives remotely? Do you need a VPN? Could you participate in meetings via video conferencing?
Once you’ve had a conversation about potentially working remotely and set up the tools you’d need to work from home effectively, Axelbaum suggests bringing your work laptop (if you have one) to and from work every day. “It’s easier to leave your computer at the office when you don’t have work to do at home, but you never know when there might be a quarantine or you might start to feel ill, so it’s important to be prepared.”
If you and many of your colleagues do end up working from home, there are a few things you can do to stay on top of things and be as productive as possible. “We suggested to our employees that they do video check-ins daily to stay current, leverage company communication tools to support one another in completing tasks, and respond to our clients with the same level of commitment as we do when we are physically in the office,” Axelbaum says.
Of course, working from home may become more of a necessity not even just because of illness, or the avoidance of illness, but because more schools are closing their doors due to outbreak risks every day. “We need to be aware that if schools get shut down, parents might need to take calls with some little voices in the background,” Axelbaum says. “Let’s give everyone a little extra grace during this time for being humans as well as coworkers.”
That’s a good reminder across the board: We’re all just humans, doing the best we can, in need of a little grace as we navigate these uncharted waters. Let’s help keep each other safe by following government recommendations, encouraging our companies to put policies in place that help us avoid illness, and taking the precautions we each need to stay healthy while doing our jobs. And as stressful and anxiety-provoking as things may get, let’s keep treating one another kindly and respectfully, too.