Health, Business Leaders Navigate the Tricky Maze of Bringing Workers Back

Nancy Grover

Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – A San Francisco software company is looking at redesigning its office space, as employees return to the workplace. But the idea is not to eliminate its open spaces, as some organizations have suggested during the pandemic. Instead, Salesforce wants to maximize the productivity of the majority of workers who will be in the office just a few days per week.

“We’re taking a look at the physical space and trying to envision more collaboration, more meetings, making more space available,” said Michele Schneider Salseforce’s SVP of Global Workplace. “We’re getting rid of the majority of our private offices because we really want people to not be constrained in finding a space to meet. How do we create this flexible workspace for people to come in with their flexible schedules and make the most of their time at work.”

Schneider was among a panel of business and health representatives during a recent Town Hall on Navigating Safer Workplace Returns. The speakers addressed ways to bring employees back in the safest ways possible, including advocating for vaccines among workers.

Vaccines

“Covid-19 has been one of the biggest workplace safety hazards in a generation,” said Lorraine Martin, president and CEO of the National Safety Council. “Employers have a major role to play in national vaccination efforts.”

Part of the issue is easing the process for workers to access vaccines. Martin cited a recent study from Kaiser Permanente that showed nearly one-quarter of workers said they would be more likely to get vaccinated if it were available in the workplace.

“We’re reaching a new critical stage in the pandemic, where vaccines have become available to all adults,” Martin said. “That’s undoubtedly good news, and yet it can introduce a lot more complexity for employers faced with another challenge of how to position safe transitions back to the physical workplace beyond the essential workers who have been in their workplaces during this time — particularly when we know some people are vaccinated and some people are not.”

One question being raised by employers and others is whether to consider different protocols for workers who have been vaccinated vs. those who have not. “What we’ve heard is a lot of people are trying to figure this out,” said Deb Friesen MD, a consultant at Kaiser and host of KP ‘s Health Views With Deb Friesen. “A lot of people are tired of wearing masks; ‘I want to have the experience of the benefit of having been vaccinated by not have to go into the workplace wearing a mask.’”

But going so far as to provide benefits for one group of workers over another can be fraught with problems.

“I come to the table thinking about diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging,” said Courtney Jones, SVP Client Experience, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Weber Shandwick. “If we think about separating our workforce for those who are vaccinated and those who are not to me that is the opposite of creating an inclusive environment of belonging because, quite honestly, we do not know an individual’s decision as to why they choose to not get vaccinated … we don’t want people to feel shamed if they return and are not vaccinated. We want to think about everyone and not just those who are vaccinated and excited because we don’t know what leads people to the decisions they make. So be conscious of encouraging people to do what is right but also considering that we don’t know what drives those decisions.”

One thing that could help is having an OSHA standard to help employers make decisions about when and how to bring employees back to the workplace. “The [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] CDC has been very helpful, but they mainly focus the workplace-related guidance on healthcare settings,” Martin said. “That leaves employers with a patchwork of incomplete information.”

The NSC has developed 10 recommendations for ‘Vaccination Leadership and Expanded Operations.’ “Vaccines are the key that will reduce restrictions in our daily lives and in our workplaces,” Martin said. “The most important thing employers can do to keep workers safe is help lead vaccination efforts.”

Among the NSC’s recommendations are:

  1. Providing paid time off for workers to receive and recover from any side effects of the vaccine.
  2. Offering to help with scheduling a vaccine appointment and transportation to and from the location.
  3. Coordinating onsite vaccination clinics, where possible.
  4. Encouraging employers to foster peer-to-peer communication, or peer-led conversations at worksites. “Remove trust barriers by supporting peer-led sharing and conversations, engaging in an authentic conversation with those who have not yet received vaccinations with a focus on listening, acknowledging viewpoints and concerns, and leveraging positive stories,” according to the description. “It’s a proven method for encouraging vaccination rates,” Martin said.

Additional Considerations

Employers should weigh a variety of factors when deciding when and how to bring employees back to the worksite, the speakers said. Among the first is to determine what the burden of disease is in the local community.

“The national pandemic curve is on the decrease and getting close to an all-time low, but you still have to look at where employers are located. What is the burden of disease according to your public health department.” said Lewis Radonovich, MD, deputy division director of the Respiratory Health Division at the CDC. “A variety of measures can be used there; the number of new cases, deaths, hospitalizations and percent positivity in your community are key data points to ascertain how much disease there is in your community.”

The type of workplace should be another consideration. “Is it public facing with employees interacting with customers on a regular basis whose vaccination status you don’t know?” said Radonovich. “Are they interacting in a closed situation? … How close are employees working together? Are they able to distance 6 feet or are they working together?”

Then there are considerations about the risk factors of employees. “Are these individuals who are young and healthy so their risks are low?” said Radonovich. “Are they middle aged with low comorbidities? Or more likely to be at high risk for complications – things like diabetes and obesity or an immune system that doesn’t function correctly? Occupational health services at your company can help.”

Communicating with employees about returning to the workplace is imperative, the speakers said, whether it’s having town hall meetings, sending communications through various channels, or having staff members available onsite to speak with workers as they return.

“The physical aspect of returning to work is daunting,” said Salseforce’s Schneider, “so we are trying to do everything we can to answer questions ahead of time, and for anyone on site.”

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