COVID-19: Reopening for Business in a Post-Coronavirus World

Make no mistake: The world of work will never be the same again. Just as 9/11 changed how the world travels, the COVID -19 pandemic will change how we work. These changes will extend to how individuals commute, enter workplaces, interact with others, manage tasks, and more. In a post COVID-19 world, work not only has to be safe, it has to be “clean and assured.”

We have identified six broad topics that organizations will need to address as they re-open for business, ranging from how we define “clean” to the nature of work and the supporting logistics.

1. Clean and Assured

After 9/11, the public needed assurance that air travel was safe and secure. A new level of screening affected every traveler and airport employee. Similarly, post pandemic, employers will need to provide assurance that workplaces are clean and assured. Even if the population achieves herd immunity from COVID-19, people will expect facilities to maintain high standards.

To start, firms will need to adopt rigorous cleaning procedures for customers and employees. In response to COVID-19, the CDC has promulgated recommendations for how cleaning should be done.

These procedures will need to be transparent to all parties. This may take the form of certification, such as the safety inspection notices posted in elevators, or a rating, like a health department posting in a restaurant. As with other safety items, these practices will need to be audited.

In the longer term, it is reasonable to assume that regulators will redefine minimum cleanliness standards for things ranging from disinfection processes to employee hygiene. Furthermore, employee adherence to stricter sanitary practices will need to have clearly defined behaviors. These could range from something as simple as hand washing instructions to complex cleaning techniques for specific machines, processes, or industries.

Leaders will need to reinforce behaviors, and ensure there is transparency of actions and situations, as in similar leadership methods within health and safety. This means cleanliness conversations and reviews. They will need to define and distribute new cleanliness metrics, as well as sharing firm performance with employees. In addition, supervisors will need to implement a host of new standards, which will require them to develop a new set of skills around management of cleaning, disinfection, and inspection.

We can also expect to see increased use of personal protective equipment (PPE), including expanded use of gloves and face masks, becoming the norm in many customer-facing environments. Procedures for inbound and outbound materials will also need to change. Much like “hazard analysis of critical control points” (HACCP), exposures to viruses must be minimized across the supply chain. This could mean minimizing touch points, creating disinfection protocols, and diversifying sourcing. These procedures will need to be clearly defined and communicated, with expectations established for employee accountability.

Facility upgrades will also need evaluation, from better HVAC and air filtration to protective compartments for workers.

2. Healthy

Before returning to work, we can expect some form of regulatory scrutiny or guidance on which industries can begin to gear up and in which geographies. Federal, state, and local governments will likely play roles in making these determinations. This may be done on a county-by-county assessment of risk as well as prioritization of industry types. An orderly and risk-based return to work will tread new ground in terms of legal issues, medical counsel, and privacy, particularly if individuals return to work based upon virus exposure, immunity, or vaccination.  

Once at work, it is reasonable to assume that employees will be regularly tested and screened for COVID-19 symptoms, which will likely raise both privacy and employment law issues. How to implement expanded testing and screening will be determined later. Firms will need to create isolation rooms for employees who experience symptoms while at work, and quarantine policies will be a necessity. The CDC has created guidance documents on how this should work.

Once back to work, companies will need to address time off policies, addressing, for example, practices that are punitive for absences. Any revisions to time off policies will need to balance the need to keep sick employees home with the need to keep operations going. Expect to see employers scrutinize their time off practices to get the right balance of running operations and allowing employees to stay home while ill. Ultimately, organizations cannot afford to have employees report to work while displaying symptoms of COVID-19. In addition, they need to address the reality that some employees may be asymptomatic and infectious.

In the longer term, access to telemedicine facilities will be the norm, as we can expect a dramatic increase in its use as it becomes “business as usual.” This will be for both industrial medicine and individual health care appointments. Given the level of stress in the environment, proactive support of employee mental health will be essential.

3. Monitored

In the short term, employees and visitors can expect increasingly invasive forms of health monitoring. It is easy to imagine some of these changes becoming part of how we operate in the longer term. Examples of changes will include active monitoring of health and symptoms, from screening for viruses to temperature monitoring. These changes will alter the concepts of privacy in ways we have not anticipated.

If we look to Asia as a post-COVID-19 model, employees globally will likely begin to be classified based on health standards. For example, a green code on an electronic device or wristband may signal COVID-19 immunity or vaccination and allow employees access to transport, employment, and commerce.

4. Individualized

The days of shared office equipment and close quarters for seating are likely at the end of the line. Shared equipment is a source of shared germs. This includes computers, printers, PDAs, and phones. In addition, thought needs to be given to non-touch control systems for other shared fixed equipment such as elevators and doors (especially fire and other egress doors). Close quarters encourages the spread of virus through exposure to infectious particles.

As people return to work, firms will need to evaluate shift schedules, rotations, and start times in order to minimize exposure. Large employee meetings will be postponed, if not eliminated. Similarly, cafeterias will change, based on reducing employee exposures. These responses will need evaluation for both business as usual and future pandemic planning.

5. Isolated

Technology has enabled many businesses to function as normal during the pandemic. We can expect that the remote working option will grow in popularity, meaning some of the workforce will make working from home permanent. In other areas, we may see an acceleration of job automation, particularly for routine transactions and point-of-sale work.

Where employees continue to work in office environments, there are likely to be fundamental design changes to accommodate for social distancing. This means a shift away from shared space and open space offices.

Travel will reduce significantly, as employers integrate virtual technologies into business as usual. Where travel alternatives are not feasible, firms will need to make risk-based decisions on what travel modes and facilities are acceptable. Expect to see changes in commuting, car-pooling, and ride sharing, driven by a desire for improved separation and lower density transport options.

6. Prepared

To ensure that critical infrastructure and essential functions are maintained, organizations will increasingly rely upon employee sequestering, or housing employees near facilities and isolated from the population at large. This will require planning, training, and practice to accomplish. This is of particular focus for utilities, energy providers, and manufacturing.

The current crisis has also taught us the value of being prepared for pandemics. This means having policies and practices ready to go when needed. It means robust IT systems to manage work from home and other needs. It also means having periodic drills to ensure the robustness of plans and the readiness of leaders. Drills must test the robustness of supply chains. At a tactical level, it also means having stockpiles of required PPE and other essentials. At an individual level, it means having clear behavioral expectations, review, and feedback. At a board level, it means regular challenge and review for plan robustness.

Fundamental Shifts Ahead

As the world emerges from the current pandemic, the world of work will make some fundamental shifts – shifts that address biological, physical, and emotional challenges. Just as we made changes post 9/11, we will adapt and respond to the challenges of pandemics. It will require thoughtfulness and planning. People will need to change their fundamental behaviors of how work gets done and how we keep our facilities clean and assured.

For more information, contact us.

Larry Pearlman
Senior Vice President, Workforce Strategies Practice
Marsh Risk Consulting