Sep. 14, 2021

Reduce Liability Risk as Employees Return to the Workplace

A SPECIAL REPORT BY TRIPP SCOTT'S PAUL O. LOPEZ AND BRITTANY L. HYNES

For over a year, the world has responded and adapted for the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses in all industries have been introduced to an assortment of changes, from expanded use of video communications to widespread remote work. 

Now, with the presence of COVID-19 vaccines, businesses can begin preparing for the new normal. As businesses start to return to the office, employers must remain cognizant and should each develop their own approach for safely transitioning back. In fact, how employers proceed could prove essential to their success.

Develop protocols

To mitigate liability risks when bringing back employees to the workplace, companies should follow the guidance and recommendations issued by applicable government agencies and ensure they are implementing the guidelines in compliance with existing laws and regulations. 

At the same time, employees are looking for clearly defined in-office procedures and need up-to-date information relevant to their role and location. As a preliminary matter, companies should develop action plans to prioritize employee safety.

While some employees may be eager to return to the office, others with health concerns or who care for vulnerable individuals may be less excited. Employers should alleviate concerns where they can and contemplate alternative options where suitable.

A crucial first step will be developing and implementing work-place policies that focus on ensuring a safe work environment.  These policies should include written guidance regarding social distancing in the workplace, office layout changes, and changes to social customs (e.g., sharing food, shaking hands, group gatherings, etc.).

The policies should include clear instructions for collaborating, gathering, and educating the employees on the potential dos and don'ts when returning to the office. For instance, companies should determine capacity in conference rooms based on appropriate social distance and establish post-meeting sanitary practices to help keep areas ready for the next meeting. 

Months of working from home has led to many employees swapping out their suits for sweatpants and work shoes for slippers. Accordingly, as more employees return to the workplace, companies may also want to consider taking proactive measures to avoid such casual attire in the office.

If there is already a policy in place, companies can remind employees of the policy before returning to work. If a company does not have a dress code policy but anticipates employees to return to the office in clothing other than gym clothes, then it should execute a policy prior to the return and circulate it to all employees.

Communication is key

Coordinating hundreds or thousands of employees return to the office is an intricate process, and workplace plans will be unique to each business. However, establishing policies about returning to the office is only a part of the job.

Communication about when, who and how employees will return to the office and the new behaviors they will be expected to exhibit is just as important. In fact, how companies communicate about their return-to-work plans—in terms of both messages and actions will have a substantial influence on employee engagement, morale, productivity and contentment.

Gaining a high degree of employee support and approval demands a carefully planned, well-detailed and cautiously executed employee communications plan to describe the company’s plan to this vital issue. To start, employers should craft an announcement explaining when employees are expected to return to the office, measures that have been or will be taken to promote health and safety, and naming contacts available to discuss any worries relating to the re-opening.

As most employers are likely realizing, it can be extremely difficult, especially within large companies, to obtain employees buy-in and support, to adapt to change and to align with new business initiatives and recommendations.

The impacts of a year of remote work, coupled with lingering concerns of COVID-19 risks, will create communication obstacles that could block productivity. As such, effective communication should not stop once the return-to-work announcement is made. Internal communication must become and continue to be a top priority.

Communications should be regular, factual, and written in plain language so that employees can fully understand them.  Every leader should be giving regular updates and requesting feedback and suggestions from the workforce. 

All employees are worried about their employment and safety, and it's the responsibility of the leadership team to communicate how employees will work together to be productive while remaining safe.  

Gather documentation

The lack of a centralized communication platform can be a large productivity inhibitor for many employees. This is even more evident now that employees have much more information to absorb on a daily basis. When employees get back to the office, companies need to ensure that employees have all the pertinent information, documents, policies, procedures and guidelines in one location.

For example, a company can maintain an up-to-date repository on the company's shared network that allows employees to access all COVID-19 documents, resources, and company protocol. 

The new normal 

Because there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to reopening and resuming a company's operations, employers should think carefully about health and safety and new legal changes. Creating and updating cohesive policies as well as cultivating open and transparent communication will go a long way in easing stress for the returning workforce.

 

Paul O. Lopez, a director for Tripp Scott, has served as the law firm's chief operating officer since 2017, and has chaired the firm's Litigation Department since 2010. Co-author Brittany L. Hynes is an associate with Tripp Scott, focuses her practice in the areas of creditors' rights, commercial litigation, and general civil litigation.

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