We spoke with Chief Member Joy Allen-Altimare, Chief Engagement and Brand Officer at EHE Health, to understand how leaders can safely bring employees back to work. She shares research-backed insights to prepare for necessary public health procedures, and what legal concerns employers ought to focus on.

Q. When thinking at large about returning to the office, what are the initial steps employers should take?

Joy Allen-Altimare: Before you even get into the mechanics and science of how to bring your employees back to work, you have to understand their concerns about coming back to the office. We recognize that people who have been sheltered for more than two or three months probably have concerns around the transportation system and getting to work, more so than being at work. They may be healthy, but they may live with someone who has a compromised immune system.

The first step is surveying your employees and making them feel like they have a voice. We know from the rise in mental health requests that people feel like they've lost control, and have anxiety around not being able to control their surroundings. They feel like our government has let them down. They've lost loved ones. So you want to make sure that you help them feel like they have some control over the situation. Giving them the opportunity to voice their concerns in the most important first step.

Then you need to honor their concerns. My business has proven that we can continue to maintain business and drive revenue by people working from home — the pandemic has proven that across the board. So if you administer the survey and 70% of people say they don't want to come in, then you have to honor them. Tell people they don’t have to come back.

Q. For organizations whose employees want to return to the workplace, what practices do you recommend implementing?

JA: Every workforce is different, and all people have different living situations. Some employees live outside of the city and have a house — and some of them live in a one bedroom apartment and are going crazy. So after you survey your employees, you can decide to open the office headquarters for people who want to come in. You can offer travel stipends for people who don't want to take public transportation. They can park or take Ubers instead.

The first thing I would do is look at how many people want to return, define a capacity cap, and create a staggered approach to returning that accomplishes social distancing. Divide returning employees into groups of three, and bring them back in for A week, B week, and C week. If I’m in group A, I know that I come in that week and don’t come in for two more weeks. Then, you have to test employees upon their return. Every single day when they come into the office, you have to ask them the three-question CDC assessment: “Have you been around someone who's infected? Have you traveled? Do you have any symptoms?” And you take their temperatures every single day. Everything together — the assessment, the temperature check, the testing — helps you have more certainty around the status of the individual. Because as an employer, you owe your employees the safety of understanding who possibly has COVID.

In the office, you want to make sure that people are sitting diagonal to each other and not directly across from each other. As far as partitions go, I would suggest clear ones that cover someone’s monitor — a shield so that particles that carry the virus can’t be released. I’d also make sure to have hand sanitizer, antibacterial wipes, and even PPE on site in case someone needs it. These initial steps are how you create little circles of trust so people can coexist in an office.

Q. What are some of the primary legal concerns employees should be thinking about with regards to their return-to-work strategies?

JA: First of all, the guidance from the government is unclear, and it changes every day. Companies need to be aware of that. The second thing to be aware of is the need to respect employees’ rights. If you’re going to start testing them, you need to acquire their consent to the test. You need to acquire their consent to the temperature check, too. The health information your employees provide is information covered by HIPAA, which an employer typically should not have. But the guidance from the government today is that if that information allows you to create a safe work environment, you can ask them for consent to provide that information.

That information, however, can never be used against them. And you have to provide a consistent experience for all employees. Whatever you're doing for your top executives, you need to do for your factory workers. If you're providing testing for your top executives, you can't discriminate against a lower employee.

Originally Published July 13, 2020