Various areas of the country are reopening after COVID-19 forced much of the country to either work from home or apply for unemployment benefits. As more companies make plans for employees to return to the office, a new Korn Ferry survey indicates that employees might not be ready. Half of those surveyed are afraid for their health, even though 75% think their companies will do a good job providing a safe workplace. Less than one in three (32%) say it’s “highly likely” that they will head back to their desks when the office reopens.
Attitudes about going back to the office vary considerably from employee to employee and place to place, says Jeff Levin-Scherz, MD, national coleader of the health management practice at Willis Towers Watson and assistant professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. While some people may be tired of trying to work at home, other people may be genuinely afraid for their own health or that of vulnerable loved ones.
“Employees should be asking what the employer has done to be sure the workplace remains safe and query about the transmission rate in the community,” he says. Here are some of the key questions you should be asking as you make your decision about going back to the office:
What safety measures have been put in place?
Understanding what measures your employer has put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is critical to informing your decision about whether to go back, says psychologist Sherry Benton, founder and chief science officer of TAO Connect, a company that provides virtual mental health and education tools for professionals and clients. Measures such as requiring masks, distancing workstations, enhancing cleaning and disinfecting, checking temperatures, and the like are baseline precautions. Water fountains and ice machines may be turned off.
Benton says you should also ask about the building’s features. Does it have an HVAC system that circulates air from other offices? If you need to use the building elevator, what distancing protocols or additional disinfecting have been implemented? Think through the potential risks and ask how they have been mitigated.
Have scheduling changes been made?
Another way to mitigate risk is to stagger scheduling so fewer people are in the office at the same time, Levin-Scherz says. Ask about whether employees will return on staggered schedules to reduce the number of people in the office at the same time. That can be another good way to prevent disease spread, he says. Workers may come into the office two or three days per week and work from home on other days.
Are your coworkers adhering to safety protocols?
Location, infection rate, and prevailing attitudes are also important. If you live and work in an area where infection rates are low and the people in your workplace are taking precautions seriously, you may have less to fear than people in high-risk areas where social distancing and mask-wearing are not the norm, Benton says. Again, such factors may vary significantly depending on location and company, so it’s a good idea to look into them.
What are the contingency plans if there is an infection in the office?
In some cases, even the best-laid plans may not be fail-proof. Ask your supervisor or the appropriate person in leadership what the contingency plans are if an infection does happen in the office, suggests Shane Metcalf, chief culture officer at 15Five, a performance management software platform.
“If a company is starting to open up offices again, don’t put all of the eggs in one basket,” he says. How will employee health be monitored? What are the steps the company will take if an infection happens? How soon will other employees be notified? The answers to all of these questions can help you get a clearer picture of how seriously the company is taking the health risk.
What can you control on your own?
You can also mitigate some risks on your own, Metcalf says. Bring extra masks and disinfecting wipes to work. Wear your mask and maintain social-distancing protocols around the office. Avoid going to the office if you don’t feel well. Pack your own lunch. Each of these small steps can slightly reduce your risk.
And you need to think about your personal comfort level, too. Your coworkers may be happy to see you and show affection. “Some people might just want to come in for a hug, and you may need to say, ‘Hey, sorry, I’m not there yet,’” he says. “It’s better to be somewhat socially awkward and potentially even come off as a little impolite than let your own boundaries be violated.”
Do you have alternatives if you don’t want to go back?
If you’re not convinced that the company is adhering to required safety protocols, you may have options, says Kelly Williams, founding partner and employment attorney at Slate Law Group, which provides HR and legal services to small businesses. Each state and some cities or regions have their own reopening requirements to which businesses must adhere. If they don’t, they may face consequences. “You have a right to notify them of that if they don’t remedy [their lack of adherence],” she says.
If your anxiety about the situation is interfering with your daily life or your ability to function and the company has 15 or more employees, you may also have grounds to request accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But that can be difficult to prove, Williams says. Talk to your supervisor about your concerns. If you feel they are not being taken seriously, it may be a good idea to consult an attorney versed in the reopening plans and employment laws in your state.
By gathering the facts and controlling what you can, you will be able to make the best possible choices for your situation.
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