The big return - assessing return to work risks and resilience post-lockdown
Over the months since COVID-19 was first identified and following stringent lockdown measures in most countries, we have been seeing the tentative easing of lockdown conditions.
At a time when government guidelines change regularly and vary by country and even region, and the unknowns of the pandemic and its long-term effect on society are numerous, the prospect of returning to a physical workspace is a daunting one for both employers and employees.
For even the most experienced risk managers, navigating the risks during this next phase will be challenging as we balance the desire to get the company back to full operational capability while providing a safe working experience for colleagues and visitors alike. For many of us, the early stages of easing will be very subtle. Many businesses that are able to operate remotely are likely to continue to encourage their employees to work from home for some time to come. Already there have been companies that have openly informed staff they have the option to continue working from home post pandemic. However, for those industries that must be present at a designated place of work, the process of adjusting to the ‘new normal’ raises a myriad of new and subtly different risks.
How exactly this will happen is not yet clear and will undoubtedly vary between countries, industries and individual businesses. What we can safely assume is that there will be several phases, all of which will need to be carefully risk assessed.
Based on insight from senior risk managers within the insurance market, the following non-exhaustive list provides insight into some of the considerations for businesses as we begin to emerge from the lockdown.
Preparing the office
As businesses and employees prepare to return to the workplace, there will be a focus on the ability to adhere to health and safety guidelines, including social distancing, a sanitary working environment and, in some instances, the need for personal protective equipment (PPE).
Employers will need to ensure the working environment is equipped and ready to safely welcome colleagues back. Are hand sanitiser, soap and alcohol wipes readily available to keep hands and equipment such as keyboards and telephones clean? Are desks sufficiently spaced out to adhere to social distancing guidelines? Even something as simple as how to keep door handles clean will need to be considered.
Companies are probably going to have to redesign the work space so that colleagues can maintain a safe distance from one another. A hot-desking model may no longer be feasible and break out spaces may have to be reconfigured.
For as long as the coronavirus remains an active threat, companies need to carefully consider and regularly review their risk management procedures, prioritising the safety of people.
Regularly reviewing health and safety processes makes the likelihood of something going wrong far less likely. Updating these practices in accordance with government guidelines and ensuring protocols regarding an individual’s return to work following illness, plus any additional health screening arrangements, should be clearly communicated to all employees. Where possible, asking employees for their views and sense checking that any plans are aligned to the sentiment of the workforce is a valuable undertaking that will also increase engagement.
The return of the workforce
The risks associated with the return will vary depending on the location of the workplace.
Companies that operate in offices with shared spaces need to consider social distancing measures and regular cleaning in areas such as lobbies and lift halls. They may wish to consult with facilities management and building landlords to ensure that an agreed process is in place. Putting the agreement in writing or requesting a regular signed report may be prudent to make sure the appropriate steps are taken at regular intervals each day.
IT management is likely to continue supporting a number of colleagues who are working remotely, and they may be working remotely themselves. As well as the everyday support requests that they must deal with, additional considerations such as the distribution of new equipment and updates to security software should be taken into account. Staff training and communication on the importance of remaining vigilant to phishing attacks, malware and possible data breaches should continue and best practice encouraged at all times.
There are areas of risk that sit outside a company’s control notably around commuting and social distancing outside work but it can help keep good practice front of mind by encouraging adherence to government guidelines and clear signposting. For any visitors wish to enter the workplace, hand sanitiser and hand washing facilities should be located close to the reception area. Additional safety measures such as posters reminding visitors of symptoms and even thermal scanners at the entrance to buildings can be considered.
Vulnerable and high risk individuals
COVID-19 has claimed many lives around the world and negatively impacted the lives of large numbers people in many different ways. The physical and mental health repercussions of the virus and the subsequent quarantine conditions may affect members of the workforce.
There may be a heightened need for support services for colleagues and employers may also wish to consider their policy on allowing individuals to continue to work from home if they are fearful for their health or that of a close family member.
As always with employee concerns regarding discrimination, employers should be ready to respond proactively if an employee feels discriminated against as a result of having had the virus or for another, related reason.
While it may currently feel like a minefield of risk, there is also cause for optimism and improvement as we embark upon this new normal in the workplace.
Many business leaders have spoken publicly over recent weeks about their change of heart when it comes to the need for centralised working spaces, which may lead to a reduction in office space as increasing numbers choose to work remotely on a regular and long term basis.
By removing the traditional commute and reducing floor plans, companies can give valuable time back to their employees and save on budgets traditionally reserved for rent and office infrastructure.
Financial savings could be invested into equipment that enhances the remote working experience for staff and used to offset expense ratios. The combination of these factors, plus a likely reduction in business travel due to the widespread adoption of remote meeting technology, means businesses can reduce their carbon footprint and look to improve their environmental and social governance (ESG) standing.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of considerations and official guidelines continue to evolve as we tentatively move towards a new normal. Companies will develop procedures to compliment the particular needs of their people and their business.
In a time of uncertainty we can be sure of this: we mustn’t take for granted that our long-term success is dependent on a collective sharing of responsibility. As businesses and as employees, we must each do our part.
About the author:
Andrew was appointed Chief Risk Officer in January 2011 and is a member of the management team. Andrew joined Beazley as Group Actuary in 2005 and was responsible for all aspects of actuarial advice to the Group. Andrew is an Affiliate of the Institute of Risk Management and a Fellow of the Institute of Actuaries.