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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Is It Safe to Go Back to Work? 8 Questions to Ask If Your Company Is Planning to Reopen the Office

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Silicon Valley giants like Twitter and Facebook may have announced that employees can work from home indefinitely, but plenty of companies are expecting folks to come back to the office at some point. Your own office might be open already, or reopening soon.

But is it safe to go back to work? A lot depends on the policies and procedures your company is putting in place as employees return—and you’re going to want to know what they are ahead of time.

Ideally, your company will spell out in writing the safety policies it will put in place, says Edgar Ndjatou, executive director of Workplace Fairness, a nonprofit that promotes and advocates for employee rights. “It shows that the company is taking it seriously, and also it’s a central way to communicate so that everyone knows what’s expected.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently laid out guidelines for employers, but state and local rules sometimes differ from the CDC’s advice, and that’s what’s actually enforceable, Ndjatou says. “If a company doesn’t follow state guidelines, employees can report them for noncompliance and they could be fined or even shut down,” he says. Typically you can find reopening guidelines for your area on your local Department of Labor website, or your mayor or governor’s homepage may have links to this information.

If your company doesn’t provide information about safety policies before you head back to work, experts suggest asking some specific questions about what to expect upon returning. You can pose these questions to your direct supervisor, human resources contact, or union representative, Ndjatou says, depending on how your workplace is set up. If those folks aren’t helpful, don’t be afraid to cast your concerns up the chain to a member of the management team. In some cases, companies may hold a virtual meeting or forum for employees to pose questions about reopening; if not, you may need to request a one-on-one conversation or send your questions in an email.

Here are eight questions you’ll want to get answers to:

Are You Consulting With Local Health Authorities About the Status of Coronavirus Transmission in Our Area?

Companies need to be aware of the pandemic’s current impact and trajectory, and they should definitely be working with local public health authorities (and unions, depending on the industry) to guide their decision making, says Melissa Perry, professor and chair of environmental and occupational health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.

“[Companies’] reopening criteria must be developed and adapted based on how frequently the virus is being transmitted and whether transmissions and deaths are increasing or decreasing, and for how long,” she says. So you want to make sure that your company is tuned into the most updated and accurate information the local health department can provide and is making its decisions, policies, and procedures accordingly.

Have You Created a Work Plan That Will Ensure Employees Can Practice Physical Distancing Throughout the Day?

Physical distancing—maintaining a distance of at least six feet between individuals—is the bedrock upon which all other virus control measures sit, says Perry. “It’s the ultimate requirement for maintaining infection control. We know the virus is transmitted by aerosolized droplets that typically don’t carry beyond six feet,” she says. “We also know that people who are infected can have no symptoms at all, yet still transmit it to others.”

The critical part of this question is “throughout the day,” not just when you’re at your workstation or desk, Perry adds. Will you be able to maintain a distance of six feet when you enter or exit the building or parking deck, ride the elevators or climb the stairs, use the bathroom, attend meetings, go on break, or eat lunch? For some employers, this may mean staggering work schedules or workdays in order to reduce the number of people on site at any given time.

Although the details may differ based on the particulars of your company’s space and situation, there should be a plan in place that takes into account how you’ll be able to maintain physical distance from your colleagues in every scenario.

How Will the Office Be Reconfigured to Reduce the Likelihood of Transmission?

Moving desks further away from one another or erecting barriers between desks, especially if you have an open office plan, can help ensure proper distancing between workers.

Air flow is another important consideration, Perry says. “Companies need to think about the way in which air is ventilated within the facility so it doesn’t push respiratory droplets from one person to another.” 

For example, employers may need to move desks or workstations so people aren’t sitting directly beneath air conditioning vents. Bringing in fresh air is also better than recirculating enclosed air, and it may be a good idea to open the windows, adds Perry. To get a sense of what you should be hoping to hear from your company, check out the guidelines from the CDC as well as the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) on preparing workplaces for COVID-19, which recommend, for example, that employers work to increase ventilation and install high-efficiency air filters.

What Sanitizing or Disinfecting Procedures Will Be in Place for High-Touch Surfaces?

These are the surfaces that have the highest risk for transmitting the virus, according to Perry. “Does every single surface need to be constantly disinfected? No,” she says. “But we are concerned about things like elevator buttons, door handles or knobs, guardrails, air dryers or paper towel holders in bathrooms, and toilet handles. These surfaces must be continuously sanitized and we must continuously wash our hands.”

The CDC has issued guidance for cleaning and sanitizing public spaces, including the types of acceptable disinfectants, and OSHA guidelines state that employers should provide cleaning products like hand soap, alcohol-based sanitizers, disinfectants, and disposable towels for employees to clean their own work surfaces. You’ll want to make sure your company has a clear plan in place for addressing common spaces as well as providing supplies based on these guidelines.

Will Employees Be Required to Wear Face Coverings/Masks?

Remember, the mask is to protect others, not yourself. But a company-wide policy and culture of mask-wearing means everybody is protecting everybody else. “Each of us has the potential to infect others, even if we don’t have symptoms. If everyone wears face masks routinely, it can reduce the spread of droplets from coughing, sneezing, and even speaking,” Perry says. Per the CDC, it’s best practice to cover your face in public whenever you can’t maintain a distance of six feet, especially if you’re in a geographical area where the virus is circulating widely.

So you’ll want to ask your company what its policy will be, what the building’s policy will be (if you work in a shared building), how the company will convey to employees the importance of wearing masks, and how rules around face coverings will be enforced.

However, make sure your company isn’t simply asking employees to wear masks while ignoring the need for physical distancing and other protective measures. “Assurance that everyone is wearing masks is important in places like elevators and stairwells,” Perry says. “But if all you do is require masks, you’re not achieving the necessary protection because we know that there isn’t always...100% compliance and people take them off,” she adds. Keep that in mind as you evaluate your company’s stance on masks as part of its larger plan.

What Guidelines Are in Place for Employees Who Feel Ill, Are Taking Care of Others Who Are Sick, or Have Been Otherwise Exposed?

Companies should have policies that encourage people to stay home if they’re sick or taking care of others, or if they suspect they may have been exposed to the coronavirus. Remember, it just takes just one infected person to start a new chain of coronavirus transmission. Pre-COVID, surveys showed that Americans often don’t stay home when they’re sick. If employees fear they might lose their jobs or face other consequences, they’re even more likely to come in despite having symptoms or being exposed.

All that’s to say that you want to make sure that you and all of your colleagues feel comfortable sharing that you feel sick or have been exposed and are supported if you need to work remotely or take time off.

“Ideally there’d be a mandatory 14-day quarantine for employees who believe they’ve been exposed,” says Ndjatou, who notes that the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which requires that employees (of certain public agencies or private companies with less than 500 employees) have access to emergency paid leave, is in place until the end of 2020. While other organizations may not fall under this law, they should still offer paid leave options to help keep all employees safe.

So ask about your company’s policies around remote work as well as paid time off in cases where employees might have symptoms, know or think they were exposed to someone with the virus, or have a household member who’s ill. And pay attention not only to the rules themselves, but also to the attitude of management and leadership when they answer. Do you get the sense that folks will truly be encouraged to stay home? Are there unnecessary barriers to being granted paid leave, like a doctor’s note (which OSHA cautions against at a time when healthcare providers may not be able to supply timely documentation)?

How Are You Monitoring the Health of All Employees?

“The biggest fear is going back to work in an environment where the virus is not contained and people can get sick,” Ndjatou says. You want to make sure your company is prepared with a very clear set of steps that need to be taken in the event that someone gets infected so that there’s no confusion or delay. The exact details of the plan might differ depending on your organization, but Ndjatou says it should go something like this: “The employee should tell the employer, and the employer must notify the staff. They don’t have to say who it is, unless the employee consents to being revealed as the source, but the employer should tell the staff and have their close contacts self-isolate.”

Some companies are doing temperature or symptom checks for employees every day or even multiple times a day. Ask if your employer plans to take similar steps and how they’ll be implemented. “You just have to make sure it’s done across the board and not singling out certain groups,” Ndjatou says. In other words, make sure your company isn’t planning to monitor, say, only older employees or Asian workers.

Workplaces are also increasingly relying on software to track employees’ movements or monitor their body temperature, according to Njdatou. “If you have reservations about software, ask questions, do your research, and consider contacting a lawyer,” he says. “The government has rules about privacy in the workplace, so it’s important that you understand the technology, how invasive it is, how long it will be used, and the business justification for using it.”

What Training Will be Provided to Help Employees Understand These New Policies and Adhere to Them?

“Things that sound good on paper aren’t always easy to adhere to, especially when people aren’t accustomed to having to behave this way,” Perry says. So you want to make sure that your company is prepared to do more than just set policies and call it a day.

Your company should have a plan to raise awareness about the virus and also train staff on new rules and how their work may be changed or impacted. Again, company policies should be written down and shared widely, and there should also be details about how they will be enforced, Ndjatou says. This shows that not only is your company taking safety seriously, but they’re working to earn buy-in and cooperation from employees.

What to Do If You Don’t Like the Answers

What should you do if your employer doesn’t answer your questions—or the answers aren’t satisfactory to you?

First, express your concerns, ideally in writing, to your boss, HR, or leadership, and try to keep records of any correspondence (email, letters, text messages, etc.) in case you need to file a complaint, Ndjatou advises. In some cases, your company may have the best of intentions but simply isn’t fully prepared—and your inquiries could spur leadership to update their plans and policies to take into account questions you and others have brought up.

If reopening plans are moving ahead quickly and you don’t feel the policies are sufficient—especially if you or a family member is at high risk for severe complications from COVID-19—and your role can be performed remotely, you could ask your boss to continue to work from home temporarily.

Regardless, though, employers have a legal responsibility to provide a workplace that is safe and free from health hazards, and depending on your concerns, your company may be required to address them. As a last resort, says Ndjatou, “the employee may consider taking legal action, which could include filing a complaint with a local, state, or federal government agency.”

If your employer’s response is technically legal but still problematic, consider getting in touch with a union or other worker advocacy group, which Ndjatou says can help put pressure on employers to engage in fair practices.

For many Americans, especially those with office jobs, the idea of workplace safety has taken on new meaning during the pandemic. It’s to be expected that you’ll have questions before returning to a shared space. Remember, the most important thing is that you feel secure that you will be protected on the job.