Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, businesses have had to prioritize keeping their employees safe while remaining sustainable. Early on, the answer for many companies was fairly simple: encourage your people to work from home. Now, however, as they bring employees back to the workplace, the challenges are becoming more complex — and that’s why it’s critical to focus on four key areas that ensure your people, and your business, are well taken care of.

1. Establish a timeline for employees returning to the office.

Providing clarity to your employees is critical, not only in terms of when they are expected to return to the office, but how.

Two of the best return-to-work options include:

• A “staggered” approach, which brings a small number of employees back initially and then increases that number incrementally until the entire workforce has returned.

• An “alternating” schedule, where employees are split into groups with assigned days to be in the office. One group may work in the office on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, for example, while the other is in the office on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Regardless of which method you choose, employers should continue to be flexible in special cases when their team members have health or family issues, but otherwise be consistent in what’s expected from employees.

2. Establish a COVID reopening protocol

Most everyone is aware of the basics: employee screening, increased cleaning, and social distancing. However, as a company reopens and brings its workforce back into the office, additional factors much be considering, including:

• What access will third parties have to the company’s facility?

• How will the company handle in-person meetings?

• Will masks be required throughout the facility?

• Will employees be required to return to the workplace or will be permitted to continue to work from home if they desire?

Here again, consistency and communication are the keys to success. It’s better to think things through and incur a slight delay in the implementation of policies instead of moving too fast and creating confusion.

3. Adapt to new information.

In this fast-moving and fluid situation, companies must be vigilant in following existing protocols while also flexible when presented with new information. During unprecedented times like these, it’s unclear what we’ll continue to see in terms of changes in the law, an increase in positive cases, or new recommendations from the CDC. All we know for sure is that companies will likely need to adjust their policies and procedures — and your ability to evaluate and pivot will be crucial to a successful reopening.

4. Establish a protocol for a positive employee test.

Many companies believe that it is not a question of if they will have an employee test positive, but when. Even if you’re skeptical, you should still establish a protocol in advance for a positive test. Among other things, this protocol should include:

• An understanding of the employee’s right to privacy

• A procedure for notifying employees and third parties who may have come in contact with the employee who tested positive

• A plan to deep-clean any affected work areas

• An understanding of whether the company has a potential notification obligation to OSHA or for Workers’ Compensation

Even if you plan ahead and never have to use this information, you’ll be better prepared for the next inevitable crisis.

One final note: this is a situation that demands your best thinking, so it’s important to foster teamwork and open communication during this time. That includes your leadership and HR team members, of course, but also internal and external legal counsel.

ADAM BARTROM is a partner the Labor and Employment Department of Barnes & Thornburg LLP’s Fort Wayne office. He can be reached at adam.bartrom@btlaw.com or 260-425-4629.

ADAM BARTROM is a partner the Labor and Employment Department of Barnes & Thornburg LLP’s Fort Wayne office. He can be reached at adam.bartrom@btlaw.com or 260-425-4629.

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