4 Ways Offices Can Make Returning to Work Safe, According to an Infectious Disease Expert

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Robert L. Quigley, MD, DPhil, is the Senior Vice President and Global Medical Director, Corporate Health Solutions at International SOS & MedAire. After 25 years working in surgery, critical care, and immunology, he's using his expertise to advise on crisis management, infectious disease, and health care. Here, he shares his thoughts on what your workplace should do to ensure safety if you're starting to return to an office.

The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations throughout the U.S. is lower than ever before, particularly in those states where more than half of people are fully vaccinated. Mandates such as mask requirements and travel restrictions have started to loosen, ushering in a sense of normalcy. For many people, a return to normalcy means a return to the office.

People who haven’t had to work from an office location since the start of the pandemic may be feeling some apprehension about heading back inside. What does returning to the office look like for those who are being introduced, by their organization, to protocols and the new ways of working post-pandemic? And what should it look like?

For multiple reasons, it truly varies. However, one thing is guaranteed: The post-COVID-19 in-person workplace will look very different from the pre-COVID-19 office place. Defining the “new look” in the office has become a challenging task for every business across the country.

The Value of a Return to Office Taskforce

Throughout my experience in duty of care and crisis management, I’ve learned that returning to the office after a global medical crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic calls for a return to office (RTO) taskforce. An RTO taskforce is a hand-selected team within your organization who convene on behalf of all departments and can include leadership, human resources, facilities management, legal, and/or of course, the employees. This team and its size will vary depending on how large your company is. 

Created specifically to address any challenges that may arise within the workplace, this taskforce should implement a strategy based on medical and scientific evidence, as provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as local public health authorities.

The taskforce recommendations should be tailored to your organization as well as your industry, taking into account company culture and risk appetite. The endgame revolves around the health and safety of the entire staff of a company—including their emotional health.

Many employees, to some extent, have been traumatized by this pandemic whether through illness to self, loss of a loved one, or simply through isolation. This emotional trauma has created a society where post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is everywhere. 

As organizations seek to successfully implement a return to office program, they need to embrace this reality and transparently communicate on a regular basis with their workforce to differentiate fact from fiction. For example, differentiating the value and safety of the vaccines from the conspiracy rumors that the vaccine may alter one’s DNA profile can be communicated through the company via blast emails, or even regular town hall meetings.

Once sufficient lines of communication have been determined with staff, an RTO taskforce should take the following four steps to adopt a holistic plan for its in-office staff.

Step 1: Focus on the Physical Work Environment

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted just how easily viruses can be transmitted through respiratory droplets/aerosols. To provide peace of mind for those workers fearing a future airborne viral infection such as a highly transmissible flu or even a new coronavirus—which is inevitable—organizations need to first re-evaluate their HVAC systems.

The HVAC infrastructure of a standard commercial aircraft is a great model. The cabin has a turnover of air every three to four minutes. Airflow within the cabin moves from top to bottom and front to back.

Increasing the frequency of cleaning of the workplace, particularly with eco-friendly products, can further demonstrate the company’s commitment to COVID-19 risk mitigation.

Step 2: Consider Employee Mental Health

When evaluating return to office protocols, the RTO task force should take into consideration the potential anxiety employees may feel after returning to a space many have not visited for more than a year. A taskforce must ask themselves what practices and procedures should be put in place to instill confidence and security within the workforce and in order to protect our staff. For example: 

  1. Should we continue to temperature screen at the entry points, do testing and contract tracing?  
  2. Do we wear masks and do we socially distance?   

These two practices/procedures are considered by many to be optics now that so many Americans have been vaccinated, but they are necessary protocols which can be easily relaxed as the workforce transitions into a routine within the office.

Many employees are concerned about coming back to the office. Some have become accustomed to working from home, including those who do not have outsourced childcare.

Unfortunately, some have been so severely traumatized by COVID-19 that they have developed agoraphobia, or “re-entry anxiety,” where people fear places or situations that may cause panic. Some may even have a fear of contracting COVID-19 in their previous work environment.

For this reason alone, it is prudent to continue screening upon entry, test/contract trace, and mandate masks and social distancing for everyone at least until staff have been reacclimated to their workplace. As such, company leadership is providing a safe and comfortable work environment for all and looking beyond what is scientifically and medically evidence based. 

Step 3: Factor in Workplace Anti-Discrimination Laws

The third consideration is more complex. Whatever policies and procedures your company implements, consideration must be given to individual privacy, the American with Disabilities Act, the Equality Employee Opportunity Commission and other workplace laws.

We know that the vaccines prevent severe illness in the vast majority of those fully vaccinated, but there will always be a group who refuse to be vaccinated because of religious or health reasons, and each organization must at least try to “reasonably” accommodate this sub-population. For companies who are not under direct government control, there is precedent to mandate vaccinations for all employees.

In my field of work, I’m also seeing this trend continue for higher-ed institutions. There is even a precedent in the public companies, dating back to early last century during the smallpox epidemic. In the landmark case of Jacobson v. Massachusetts, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the State that mandated smallpox vaccines be given to everyone in the spirit of protecting public health and safety.

The RTO taskforce in each organization must determine how best to “reasonably” accommodate the needs of those unwilling or unable to be vaccinated within the context of the considerations noted above. 

Step 4: Make a Call on Vaccine Passports for Business Travel

For many organizations, returning to the office includes returning to both domestic and international business travel. A taskforce must be familiar with the prevailing rules and regulations within the airline space as well as those in the destination locations such as testing and/or quarantine requirements.

One solution, which remains controversial, is the vaccine passport, which numerous companies are developing. Although the vaccine passport may be accepted by only limited airlines and/or immigration authorities, it can be used internally by organizations as a requirement to travel across borders. This means that each business traveler could be mandated to carry the vaccine passport, which would confirm they are fully vaccinated.

Such a practice may actually release the company of some liability in the event the traveler becomes ill with COVID-19 when traveling. At this time, it is wise to limit international travel to urgent circumstances only until other countries have demonstrated the same positive COVID-19 trends seen here in the United States.

As employees transition from home to the office, they need constant support and confidence from their employer that their health and safety is not in jeopardy. The only way the workforce will know that the company is doing all the right things is through the company’s transparent and repeated communication with its staff around COVID-19 risk mitigation protocols and employee assistance programs. Managers will need to be trained to encourage and host dialogue with their teams to expose and manage any underlying anxiety.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

By Robert L. Quigley, MD, DPhil
Robert L. Quigley, MD, DPhil, is a board-certified surgeon whose expertise ranges from critical care and immunology to crisis management.