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Adapting to Thrive: Tips for Organizations to Ensure a Safe and Productive Post-COVID Return to Work

By: Ben Johnston, Vice President, Business Development and Marketing, RMG Networks

One of our greatest collective qualities as humans is the ability to adapt when we encounter less than ideal environments and situations. Anthropologists refer to this quality as cultural adaptation.

COVID-19 has certainly brought about new levels of adaptation in the market and workplace, allowing us to create some new version of normalcy. Some school children in the US are now returning to classrooms that look very different from the ones they left in the Spring, with teachers and sometimes student desks surrounded by plexiglass plastic to protect each other from potentially spreading COVID-19.

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The workplace has also seen its share of adaptations. In the US, the most prominent early adaptation for many companies was to simply send large numbers of information workers home in March, while many frontline, production and supply chain workers stayed in the workplace. For the newly remote workers, many were able to quickly adapt with the help of technology and maintain some of the normal rhythms of their workplace routines.

Some employers have begun returning workers to the workplace in varying numbers, based on local ordinances, and employers are putting various strategies to work to keep employees safe.

Many employers have had to close conference rooms, limit the use of break rooms and amenities to just a handful of people at a time, and even change the flow of foot traffic to limit contact and reduce the chance of spreading the virus. Some companies have instituted temperature checks at entrances, while others have relied on employees to self-report/self-select if they feel ill or fill out questionnaires before gaining entrance the facility. HR can help their organizations and employees adapt and return to work safely by considering a few strategies and best practices.

What can technology do to help?

 First, HR leaders should realize technology is not a silver bullet that will solve all the challenges related to returning to the workplace post-COVID. The greatest communication technology is only as good as the intent and message it carries or enables. And intent starts with the messenger – in this case, the organization. Leaders and managers must make sure the organization establishes employee wellbeing as a cornerstone of the company culture.

Establish and reinforce a culture of well-being

HR has a responsibility to create, cultivate and confirm an organizational culture that values employee well-being. For the current workplace environment managing health risks, this includes developing flexibility around remote work, and communicating policies and procedures that help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Additionally, identifying and isolating employees who may be infected in the workplace then communicating company flexibility and protection is equally important.

While many employees may be ready and willing to return to the workplace, accept that some may not be comfortable. Many employees may live with at-risk individuals or have health concerns themselves. Anxiety about catching COVID-19 or potentially infecting loved ones who may be in at-risk groups is also a concern.

Flexibility in allowing some employees to continue to work from home, even if local ordinances allow for increased workplace occupancy, goes a long way in establishing trust and fostering the culture of well-being in the organization.

Firms that strike a healthy balance between productivity and the employee satisfaction that comes from a culture of well-being should reap the rewards of highly engaged teams and happier customers, as engagement and productivity studies have shown (reference Gallup).

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When you’re sure you’ve addressed well-being from a culture and policies perspective, it’s time to focus on communicating what you are doing to keep employees safe and productive as they return to the workplace. This is where technology can help.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Employees should be constantly and consistently reminded of new safety protocols in the workplace. Communicating the best practices that you have developed from sources like OSHA and the CDC in the US to employees should start before they arrive at the office and be reinforced throughout their daily workplace journey.

Many companies utilize mobile apps or employee engagement platforms to communicate with employees. Smart phones with GPS can tell when an employee is nearing the office, and platforms can send reminders to stay home if someone is feeling ill, and to wear a mask in common areas.

Technology can also help measuring the reach and impact of messaging. With most mobile and desktop messaging platforms, communicators have the ability to know if messages were opened and read and can create segments of employee audiences for retargeting if critical messages are ignored.

In the workplace, employees should be reminded often about social distancing, wearing masks, changes to office traffic patterns, and washing hands frequently and wiping workspaces after usage. Employers should make visual communication around new work and safety protocols prominent and engaging. I have been to several businesses during COVID-19 and have been shocked by the number of 8 ½ x 11 paper signs with no more than 18-point font alerting visitors and employees of new requirements for distancing and masks. While signages can be a challenge for some small businesses, many enterprise workplaces have digital signages in entry areas that should not go underutilized for this type of messaging. With digital signage, getting these messages out in common areas can be quick and easy, especially with the right software. I have talked to one customer at a large pharmaceutical company who said digital signage has been a mission critical component of her COVID-19 communication strategy. With over 40 percent of her employees being “deskless” production workers who were not sent home, the digital signage they see and pass daily in the workplace is a major communication channel for staying updated on safety protocols.

Surveys – both mobile and desktop – can also help ensure employees understand new working protocols and measure employee sentiment. The survey should be wielded carefully to ensure you receive the level of feedback you are looking to receive.

Screen Employees or Guests before Entering

Some employers are now using digital kiosks to screen employees and guests before entering. Kiosks fitted with thermal camera technology can determine if a person has a temperature and even if they are wearing a mask or not. With APIs, resulting data can be sent to entry systems to temporarily disable personnel badges and alert HR or managers. Kiosks with cameras and people counters are also being used to measure occupancy, and display messages on digital signs when the workplace has reached capacity is especially useful for offices with hot desking or office hoteling in place. These entry systems can even be tied to email and mobile alerts and can notify managers and teams when there are no vacant desks available, saving employees commute ahead of time.

Some adaptations are for short term inconveniences and some for environments or situations that have longer horizons. While no one can predict the future of COVID-19, we can all learn from each other and share successful adaptations that are helping us get back to the workplace safely and continue delivering on our companies’ missions.

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