In just a few short months (that felt very long), we’ve gained and integrated new lingo into our vocabulary. One phrase has been permanently added to our everyday vernacular: social distancing.
We’ve quickly grown accustomed to maintaining that magic number of six feet apart during our limited excursions outside our homes. But now that shelter-in-place orders are beginning to ease, many of us can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and a return to some sense of what we previously considered normal.
In helping fashion a “new normal,” employers should be actively thinking about what maintaining social distancing means for their workplace, as well as how to ensure it is implemented and complied with in the safest, most effective manner. Employees count on their employers to stay safe and healthy, so it’s important that you take well-thought-out measures to protect them.
Here are some practical tips to consider when bringing your workforce back together, while maintaining that now infamous physical distance of six feet:
Reduce Office Density
The concept is simple: the less foot traffic in your office, the easier it is to maintain appropriate physical distancing. Think about this as the perfect chance to “Marie Kondo” your office. Get creative with your space and figure out the best way to reduce unnecessary physical interactions among employees. A few ideas:
Revisit or implement a generous work-from-home policy. Think about the ways that you can maintain remote work for certain employees. Recognize that some employees may be anxious about returning to work, especially if they are members of a vulnerable population or have child care duties. Be liberal with your remote work policy, and encourage them to stay home to the extent possible. Alternatively, think about ways that certain tasks could be completed remotely to reduce the amount of time your employees physically spend at the office. For example, continue to conduct meetings over the phone or using your preferred video-conferencing platform that has become a staple for your team whenever practicable.
Rethink your open floor plan. For employees who do physically report to work, think about ways to provide them extra breathing room around the office, such as reconfiguring and maximizing your open floor plan to space out employee workstations. You may also want to consider constructing inexpensive exterior desk panels for additional physical separation, which simultaneously garner a greater sense of privacy for your employees. (Your introverted employees will thank you.) To help further reduce foot traffic within the office, consider implementing one-way aisles or walkways, and stagger shifts to reduce crowding during shift transitions.
Eliminate, restrict, or repurpose communal spaces. To discourage employee socialization from an unsafe distance, consider closing or restricting use of communal spaces such as break rooms, kitchens, and conference rooms. Think about the various ways that these areas could provide additional office space. If communal spaces can’t be eliminated completely, think about staggering meal and rest breaks and encourage employees to take their breaks away from others or at their desks to keep these areas clear. Keep in mind that your employees are entitled to use their break time as they please, so don’t require employees to eat at their desk. Be sure to remind them that they are not expected to do any work during their meal break, even if they do stay at their desks. (For more guidance on meal and break room safety, see this post.)
Communicate New Policies and Expectations
After you’ve crafted a workable game plan, it’s time fine-tune your new policies and communicate them to your employees. Start by notifying your team about these changes as soon as possible, and begin training them from day one. Many employees may be anxious about returning to the office, for many reasons such as concern for their health or just general uncertainty. Use this opportunity to kill two birds with one stone by setting clear expectations for a safe return to the office, while assuring your team that you are committed to their well-being. Such training can take many forms, and the more ways you communicate your expectations, the better!
Continue verbal communication with your employees. Begin to do so now, to give your employees a preview of what the office will look like when they return. Crowdsource ideas from your employees to get a better sense of what they are most concerned about, and determine whether and how to incorporate their feedback to make the transition smoother. This also encourages compliance once your employees return and get settled into their new office environment. When the day finally arrives, train your employees immediately so that expectations are set before they begin their workday.
Reinforce your expectations through written policies. Consider revising your employee handbook or creating standalone policies that lay out your expectations for maintaining social distancing. Have your employees review and acknowledge the new policies before returning to work, and make these policies readily available, such as by posting them on your office intranet.
Provide visual reinforcements of expectations around the office. Think about ways you can incorporate signs around the office that serve as friendly reminders to your employees to follow your designated social distancing policies. Clever signage can also add an extra flair to spruce up the office.
Encourage Compliance, But Be Fair About Disciplining Rule-Breakers
Equally important as maintaining solid policies is ensuring compliance after you’ve welcomed your employees back to the office. Continue to communicate your policies clearly, and promptly address any violations when they occur.
Ensure compliance by actively engaging your employees. Consider implementing fun and unique measures to encourage your employees to comply with your new policies. One possibility is to reward employees who go above and beyond to maintain social distancing norms around the office through employee recognition programs, such as Employee (or “Social Distancer”) of the Month.
Discipline employees who fail or refuse to comply. It is appropriate to discipline employees who create an unsafe work environment by failing or refusing to comply with your new social distancing protocols. Like any other disciplinary action, violations of your social distancing rules should be considered on a case-by-case basis. Be mindful of any medical or physical conditions that may make it difficult for employees to comply, and think through accommodations that can be offered.
Most importantly, make sure to apply all discipline in a fair, consistent manner. While not everything will go back to the “normal” we remember, equal employment opportunity laws haven’t gone anywhere, so continue to utilize them to inform your disciplinary decisions.
Finally, encourage employees to report any concerns, then address them promptly and appropriately. And, as always, don’t forget to document.
If you are unsure how to navigate a tricky situation, don’t hesitate to get in touch with your legal counsel.
Questions about COVID-19 and the workplace? Contact the Hirschfeld Kraemer lawyer who normally provides your legal advice, or you can reach out to Netta Rotstein in Hirschfeld Kraemer’s Los Angeles office, firstname.lastname@example.org, (310) 255-1807.
Did you miss previous posts in our Planning For The Rebound series? Click on the links below:
Step 1 – Requirements For Returning To The Workplace
Step 2 – Do I Have To Bring Back Furloughed or Laid-Off Employees?
Step 3 – Do Employers Need to Bring Back Under-Performers?
Step 4 – Ready To Go Back To Work? Not So Fast …
Step 5 – Passing the Test: COVID-19 Screening in the Workplace
Step 6 – Deciding Which Employees Can Return To The Workplace
Step 7 – Workplace Safety: Posters Are Not Enough
Step 8 – Safety Tips For Allowing Vendors and Visitors Into Your Workplace
Step 9 – Meal and Break Room Safety
Step 10 – Hygiene Tips For A Safe, Clean Workplace
For additional employer-focused information about COVID-19:
Click here to see the Hirschfeld Kraemer EMPLOYER’S GUIDE TO CORONAVIRUS