Getting Back to Work Safely: Three Critical Barriers to Re-entry, Solved

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Jun 25, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

An analysis of week-by-week workforce activity trends in the U.S. tracks a sharp and steady decline in employees clocking in for work leading up to mid-April, when the total number of shifts worked in America had dropped a staggering 36% compared to pre-pandemic conditions.

Flash forward 10 weeks, however, and the situation is improving: data reveals a steady and promising 29% uptick in time punches across all industries and regions as of June 21. Across the country, businesses and storefronts are slowly re-opening. Beaches and state parks are lifting access restrictions. Hospitals are admitting fewer COVID-19 patients and able to resume elective surgeries. The service sector is seeing a welcome uptick in demand — consumers are showing they are ready for things to get back to normal.

How are you preparing your workforce for the next wave of normalcy? Getting nearly 40 million U.S. workers back to work is not so simple. New considerations for the health and safety of employees — and, by extension, customers and communities – must first be addressed. Will you check employee temperatures at the door? (How long will that go on?) Will you require employees to wear masks? (Will you supply them?) How will you enforce distancing? (Is physical distancing even possible in your line of work?)

Ensuring a safe working environment is more important — and feels more daunting — than ever. However, rapid advances in workforce technology will allow organizations to streamline certain aspects of re-entry by automating or replacing manual processes and extending management’s capabilities. Now is the time for action vs. planning. Consider how modern workforce management processes and technologies can be leveraged today to solve the critical challenges associated with re-opening and help organizations safely remain open for the foreseeable future.

1. Rapidly contain exposure in the workplace

The threat of infection is still very real. When or if an employee tests positive or is presumed positive for COVID-19, it’s vital to immediately begin the process of contact tracing in the workplace. This is a globally recognized method of identifying and monitoring people who have been in close contact with someone who is infected. Almost every state government now has a plan to put in place a robust contact tracing process — a massive effort, requiring hundreds of thousands of workers — and tech leaders around the world are collaborating with public health agencies to deliver digital tools that they hope will expand the reach and efficacy of this work.

In the workplace, we are dealing with a far smaller population, but the process is just as cumbersome without visibility into who was working when and with whom. If you ask an employee to list every person they worked with over the last two weeks, it’s very likely someone would be forgotten. Consulting labor schedules has its limitations, too: if an employee works an unscheduled shift, they wouldn’t be accounted for. These are critical gaps.

But workforce data is the key. With a digital tool to analyze that data, organizations can quickly and accurately identify who worked at the same time and same location as an afflicted employee based on time clock punches and attendance data collected by their workforce management system. Automating what would otherwise be a manual (and less accurate) process, this approach will allow employers to immediately remove potential contacts – even if they are asymptomatic – from the schedule and give proper direction (e.g., encourage self-quarantine protocols, increase frequency of cleanings) to reduce risk of an outbreak at work.

2. Introduce safety protocols to manage (or eliminate) risk to workers

The CDC’s concept of prevention through design — i.e., preventing work-related illness by “designing out” or minimizing hazards and risks — is one that employers worldwide should familiarize themselves with. Getting people back to work safely relies on an organization’s willingness to introduce a broad set of safety protocols, such as workplace policies around social distancing; scheduling protocols to reduce people density and limit intermingling; and increased measures to sanitize workspaces.

While the onus is on each organization to develop its own plan for re-opening, it will benefit leaders to consider how their existing workforce management toolset can automate the various safety protocols and processes they decide to put in place. For instance, restricting the number of employees allowed on premise at once; staggering shifts and break times to minimize crowding in high traffic areas; adjusting shifts to allow extra time for disinfecting surfaces or equipment, or for dressing in protective wear; and creating scheduling groups and assigning the same individuals to the same shifts — a practical method for containing exposure.

But implementing various shift controls should not put production schedules, customer service, or patient care at risk — nor put undue administrative burden on managers. Modern scheduling systems will instead have the capacity to automatically balance staffing plans with volume, demand, and other variable trends, and identify the right set of people who are available for work based on scheduling preferences, real-time availability, and skill requirements. With this technology, organizations are able to carefully plan employee schedules to optimize resources and minimize the impact of a shrunken workforce or fragmented availability on productivity or service levels.

3. Build resiliency to embrace the “new normal”

This will not be a linear recovery. Many indicators suggest there may be another wave of the virus, or perhaps smaller flare-ups, that could once again necessitate the temporary closure of some facilities or businesses. Building resiliency into operations and workforce management practices now is the best defense for organizations faced with the impending threat of another shutdown.

Many frontline employers have already gone through this learning curve: The techniques they’ve employed — from extending omni-channel services to optimizing online ordering and strengthening workforce visibility to improve staff allocation – have kept essential services and other critical aspects of the economy functioning. But there’s another important consideration: From the front-line to office environments, employers across any industry need to get serious about workforce engagement.

Workers are expecting their employer to remain flexible and understanding: Parents with limited childcare options aren’t the only ones — everyone is challenged to find work-life balance right now. Creating a safe and supportive at-work environment that promotes trust, transparency, and employee wellbeing will be key to retaining employees throughout this uncertain time.

Act now vs. plan now

The return to work does not mean falling back into the same work routines. It’s necessary that employers are first to embrace the new normal and set the tone for their workforce to do the same. And although the rules and regulations that will dictate how exactly we return to work may be unknown, acting now to implement policies and controls to protect and empower the workforce should be the No. 1 priority for all. At the same time, organizations need to start planning how to create resiliency in their operations now so they are able to be agile and adapt quickly to the changes ahead. Our collective return to work can only happen when employers make it safe for their people to do so.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.