The COVID-19 pandemic is dramatically changing how businesses operate. We’re attempting to re-open the economy and return to work as the virus continues to ravage the country.
While some organizations and industries made the transition fully to remote work, others are either returning to in-person operations — or have been in-person this entire time.
Those companies maintaining or resuming in-person operations are having to rethink how to maintain workplace safety and ensure the health of their employees while respecting their privacy.
And they are trying to address the challenge in the face of changing regulations, inconsistent guidance and a still-raging virus, the long-term health ramifications of which are still largely unknown.
Many companies returning to a physical workspace will require that employees follow state-mandated health and safety protocols, bolstered by company-specific rules based on industry, geography and other organization-specific needs.
For these companies, their employees need to clearly understand management’s positions on safety as a priority — and the collective responsibility to share any symptoms or contact that could jeopardize their fellow colleagues.
At the same time, companies need to be fully transparent about their processes, how any technology is using employee health data, and how they are ensuring privacy, in order to encourage participation.
The Back-to-Work Framework for Employers
Across organizations, leaders will have to have had to embrace new technologies and processes to guide the return-to-work process:
- For marketing and communications, it’s necessary to develop an internal communication plan to convey workplace reopening strategies to employees. At the same time, it’s critical to manage external communications to customers and vendors
- IT leaders will have to embrace collaboration tools to support the hybrid workforce as some return to the office and others remain remote
- For cybersecurity professionals, they need to adopt secure mechanisms for storage and transfer of the sensitive employee health data involved in the workplace reopening process
- For HR leaders, they must create and share clear, up-to-date safety regulations, bolstered by a private and secure communication flow of COVID-19 related health data — like diagnostic testing results and safety regulations
For HR, this starts with clear, transparent and ongoing communication to inform employees why new health and safety measures are necessary and why they are being asked to provide sensitive and personal health data.
Employees need to know that their privacy is being respected and that any data they share is kept secure and confidential.
It’s critical to communicate all of the steps that are being implemented to manage for safety, while explicitly demonstrating how employees have absolute control over their information throughout the process.
HR technology is clearly going to play a critical role as we return and re-open. Human resources companies should select solutions that can power three key foundational steps in the process:
Step 1: Launching a simple, secure method for employees to self-screen for COVID-19 symptoms.
Doing this will help to reduce the likelihood that any employees who may be exhibiting symptoms will come into work.
An at-home self-screening process for employees — supported by a transparent and private process for sharing these screenings — is a more surefire way to assess data while mitigating risk of an outbreak.
This method provides an extra layer of privacy and security and an audit trail, which cannot be maintained in less secure applications that may be used to collect employee information, such as Google forms, open-source community apps or email.
Step 2: Setting up clear testing protocols
The virus isn’t going away any time soon — and until there’s an effective vaccine or cases otherwise plummet, many companies are opting to regularly test their employees in order to safeguard their teams, partners and customers.
The cadence for this is determined by your company’s specific circumstances. You may, for example, choose to have your workforce undergo a weekly viral test after returning to work to determine a baseline and identify positive individuals without symptoms that may cause an outbreak.
Organizations choosing to test will need a thoughtful approach — one requiring honesty and transparency between employer and employee — that protects the privacy of their employees while ensuring the company can adhere to new and rapidly evolving health and safety measures.
In the event an employee may be exhibiting symptoms, it’s important to have a process in place that allows you to privately communicate with employees and advise them to get a test as soon as possible.
With a privacy-based system that puts the data control in the hands of your employees, they determine when and with whom they would like to share their COVID-19 test results.
While you may require that these results be shared to continue their employment, giving them the ability to share it when — and only when — they are ready makes the process more participatory.
Step 3: Sharing and preserving official documents
Many industries and regions are requiring workers to carry official documents that certify their ability to work, or that they are an essential worker — particularly with more than 30 states identified as “red” or “orange” zones on July 19, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute’s “COVID Risk Levels Dashboard.”
It’s imperative that employees can access them readily within a tamper-proof system. A data-secure platform can enable you to provide employees with this letter and give them control over how and when they share this letter, as needed.
The process of reopening businesses and returning to work is built on trust between employers and their employees — trust that is the foundation of a partnership to safeguard their health and well-being at this time of uncertainty.
Employee participation and compliance are critical to ensure operational continuity as we navigate this new normal — and this can only happen with clearly stated expectations, a fully transparent process and a commitment to respect employee privacy and data security.