As the lockdown continues across much of the world, a desire to get back to normal and even back into the office has started to develop. But the health and safety of employees and communities must be paramount when considering the easing of restrictions.
I spoke with Dr. David Nabarro, World Health Organization Special Envoy for Covid-19, about the communications challenges of returning to work as the pandemic begins to ebb. He was clear in his response. “We must remember that the virus will not go away in the foreseeable future: it will remain a threat to us all and we need to find ways to live with it. Every company needs to think now about how to do more physical distancing, and how to manage requests for sick days for those who feel ill. It is a huge mistake to wait to think about these issues until the local authority decides that it is safe for staff to return to work. The time to get ready for new ways to work and to discuss them with each other needs to begin happening now. Communication matters: do not go silent.”
Here are the important considerations for the Living with Covid-19 workplace, according to Dr. Nabarro:
1. Wear the Mask — The use of the protective mask is wearing the badge of honor. You have no idea who has the infection, and some will be transmitting the virus without knowing they are infected. Dr. Nabarro has not been wearing a mask but intends to do so from now on.
2. Temperature Testing — Employees should be instructed to take their temperature at home before coming to work. It is also important to simply ask people how they are feeling and to make it a new part of corporate culture to be encouraged to take sick days as needed, to take a taxi home and err on the side of caution. Those who have Covid-19 symptoms will need to isolate even if they are not tested.
3. Make Available Approved Testing — If antibody testing does not become widely available, there should be special consideration for those groups at higher risk, with longer work at home allowance.
4. CEO Information Channel — Keep up the weekly briefings on the status of travel, work from home, attendance at conferences. Make sure that this is a two-way channel, with questions from employees on a public site so that all can be enlightened by the CEO’s responses. Companies are not doing enough communication; perhaps they are worried about getting the message right but there is a real need for facts, to work them through with their colleagues and to share ideas (and concerns) with their bosses.
5. Companies = Community — Dr. Nabarro was emphatic in saying that companies cannot go about their business until Covid-19 is controlled. Your communities include your employees, your customers and your neighbors. It is about the health of the company and the health of the community. There cannot be any sort of morality in choosing one over the other. It is a false trade-off. Do not go back to work before it is safe to do so. Companies are the spider web of community, connecting all its parts.
6. Physical Distancing — Companies need to consider techniques for protection of employees. This means limiting the number of people getting onto an elevator or congregating at the coffee machine. Dr. Nabarro says it may be smart to have an A and B team, with the former working the first three days of the week in the office, the latter the last two days, to thin the ranks of the office population. He also advocates for instituting flexible hours at the start and at the end of the day, so that there can be less crowding on mass transit.
Dr. Nabarro reminds us that societies adapted when it was shown in the 1850s that contaminated water can transmit cholera, and adapted when we realized, 25 years ago, that HIV can be sexually transmitted. We will work out how to live with Covid-19 if it remains a threat. It will seem strange at first, but we will adapt, and do it, for as long as it is needed.
It is for communicators to take these matters forward now with HR and the C-Suite in your companies. We need to discuss these reforms so that we can go back safely and without regret, at the right time. Fear is insidious; we need to be clear about the extent of changes and the deep commitment to the precautionary principle. We will then be able to achieve the trust of our colleagues in a return to the office.
Richard Edelman is CEO.