Once society begins “life as normal” following the COVID-19 lockdown, employers are legally obliged to ensure safe working environment for employees, with not only hygiene but also physical, psychological and intellectual measures in place for an indefinite period.
As lockdown regulations ease, we begin to define what the “new normal” looks like – an ongoing process as we become accustomed to the benefits it may bring, such as reduced time spent in traffic as virtual meetings grow in popularity.
In looking after our employees’ psychological and emotional needs, we should remember that everyone has had a different experience of lockdown and will all have different needs on returning to the workplace.
With this in mind, employers have to put measures in place once the doors to the workplace reopen.
Make the working environment safe
Implement these preventative measures:
- Scan temperatures of employees, visitors and contract workers and keep a visitors’ logbook.
- Encourage employees to stay home if they are sick.
- Maintain regular housekeeping practices, which include routine cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and equipment regularly.
- Work at own workspace instead of sharing equipment or workstations.
- Develop a plan of action if employees develop symptoms of the virus.
- Avoid large meetings and limit them to the number of attendees. Continue internal as well as client meetings but prefer virtual conferencing where possible.
- Avoid hugging or shaking hands with your colleagues, meeting social distancing recommendations of keeping at least two metres between you and another person. This includes seating arrangements as well as casual engagements.
- Avoid crowded lifts and rather use the stairs or the escalators.
- Prepare your care kit for employees, which includes hand sanitiser, face masks, and hand gloves.
- Encourage employees to wear face masks and wash their hands as soon as they reach home or work.
- Provide wipes for handbags or briefcases, which often carry the most germs.
- Maintain the 20 second protocol for handwashing, and provide paper towels and a closed pedal bin for them to be disposed in.
Look after employees’ psychological and emotional needs
The stress of managing work-life integration has never been more important than it will be after the COVID-19 outbreak. Employees could develop symptoms of stress-related disorders, including low mood, insomnia, anxiety, irritability, emotional exhaustion, and depression. This may be attributed to the fear of becoming sick, risk of infection, losing a loved one, as well as the prospect of financial hardship as a result of the economic recession.
In addition to the impact on our economy and businesses, one cannot discount the impact that the lockdown has had on people’s social well-being. This includes the above emotional effects, but when looking at the impact on workplace relationships and social management, the lockdown has changed the way we engage with colleagues as well as clients.
Promote building healthy relationships
Consider how to support managers and employees to develop and maintain healthy relationships both within the workplace and with external parties. This will promote improved emotional well-being as well as foster healthy workplace relationships to support productivity. Aspects to consider include:
- Encourage managers to use wellness assistance programmes and mentoring to improve emotional sensitivity and strategies to support new ways of working.
- Stress the importance of staying connected with regular team and individual check-ins to foster an environment which supports open communication.
- Encourage recognition of good work and team support despite uncertain work circumstances.
- Foster an environment with clear expectations and boundaries to help create a sense of control where there is uncertainty in many other areas of life.
- Implement activities to promote connectivity despite social distancing:
o Set up pause areas that follow physical distancing principles but encourage engagement.
o Arrange virtual team activities to allow time to engage in recreation or team-building activities such as coffee meetings or team exercise challenges.
- Engage regularly with clients using a variety of mediums, including email, calls and virtual meetings, to ensure connections are maintained not just practically but emotionally.
- Many employees who have been working at home will also face the stresses of reintegrating into daily commutes, and the fact that they have built up different ways of interacting with colleagues and clients. Consider allowing employees who have worked successfully from home to continue to do so if they are vulnerable or at high risk of contracting COVID-19.
While the “new normal” will be an ongoing process design, what we know for sure is that employees are already affected at many levels, and employers must be cognisant of this and assist where possible.
Opening up clear and “fear-free” channels of communication between management and employees, and employees and other employees may well go a long way to developing better and more meaningful work interactions.
Paresha Kala and Kate Powell are senior consultants from Health Management Solutions at Alexander Forbes.