Helping your distributed team return to the workplace while they navigate the stress and pressures of a pandemic … this wasn’t exactly in the EHS job description.

But environment, health, and safety leaders are in the unique position of being able to make a very real impact on the lives of employees at a time when we’re all taking tentative steps back towards normalcy.

Even if your organization isn’t yet at the precipice of welcoming employees back on-site, it’s still a great time to start thinking about what kind of steps you can take to facilitate the return to work while supporting your team now and down the road.

Let’s take a look at some of the ways EHS professionals can help build a smooth road back to shared physical workplaces.

Readying More than Just the Welcome Mat

The eventual return of your workforce doesn’t only require that you focus on your people. Your actual facilities need a proper once-over to ensure they’re ready to receive workers in a responsible way.

Preparing your facilities for the new normal is a task not too far removed from traditional EHS responsibilities, but there are new safety dimensions to consider. For example, it’s unlikely that your buildings have seen the same level of maintenance over the past few months, so you’ll need to make sure there are no issues as everything comes to life again.

That can take many forms, such as making sure that there’s no bacteria or mold where air flow or heating has been turned off. Areas that could house stagnant water need to be given appropriate flushing and disinfecting passes.

Indoor air quality is a rising priority in the post-COVID workplace, given that the virus spreads through airborne transmission, so staying aware of changing requirements and recommendations is paramount. Common changes to HVAC systems in response to COVID-19 include increasing air changes and percentage of outside air intake, and installing MERV 13 or HEPA filters.

Occupancy planning and physical distancing are other considerations to weigh as workers return. You may look into rearranging your office layout in order to create more space between desks and workstations. Reducing capacity and implementing staggered schedules could be necessary in some cases.

Another key element to keep in mind is upping the disinfection and cleaning schedules throughout your place of operations. This can provide peace of mind while also helping to minimize spreading during those crucial first few weeks of the transition back to the office.

This is one area where the pandemic can serve as an impetus to improve hygiene and cleanliness protocols with wider-reaching benefits. You've probably heard that people in general have been far less likely to catch a cold or flu over the past year, in part because of the measures being taken to prevent the spread of COVID. It’s a good reminder of what a difference it can make to be proactive about prevention; we don’t want people catching any kind of illness at work!

Figure Out a Clear Plan for Testing and Vaccination Policy

Are workers expected to be vaccinated as they return to work? Will there be a testing system in place to prevent possible COVID spread in the workplace? What to do in the case of known exposure or self-reported symptoms?

The answers to these questions will vary based on the organization and numerous factors, but EHS leaders should be involved in the conversations, and should help shape how guidelines are presented to employees. This is an issue that evokes strong opinions and emotions. Be sure you’re attentive to their concerns and transparent in your communications.

In addition to addressing testing and vaccination, be up-front and clear on all policies relating to safety and cleanliness. You’ll want to be sure you’re ready to tackle these issues proactively, and communicate clearly around them:

  • Will masks be required when employees return to work? If so, when and where?
  • Who owns sanitation and hygiene protocols? If employees are responsible for cleaning an area or piece of equipment after they occupy or use it, be sure those expectations are clear.
  • How will you verify that a sick employee is symptom-free and ready to come into the office? (Not just COVID, but any illness.)

Navigating this situation while maximizing safety requires participation and buy-in from everyone. Draw clear lines of accountability between employee and employer.

Here are a few resources worth checking out as your consider how your team will move forward:

The measures and procedures that your organization plans to implement to mitigate COVID-19 risks should be properly communicated to your people. Show them that you sincerely value their health and the added risk they take as they move toward returning on-premises. You want them to feel cared for before they even step through your doors.

Shining a Light on Benefits Programs

Lastly, EHS leaders have the capacity to equip their people with specific resources. A renewed focus on mental health has been a theme throughout the pandemic, but as the distributed workforce begins to come back together, there are opportunities to double down on getting people back in a positive mindset.

It’s one thing to feel the stress and pressure of these disruptive circumstances alone, but the notion of returning to work can exacerbate those stresses in some people if they don’t have the right support. 

Focus on making self-service mental health benefits easily available and try to communicate the value of talking to HR about any difficulties employees may have. Even before they step through your doors, work to rally positive feelings about the work and the team, and gather feedback on reservations or hesitations so you can be ready to address them head-on.

It’s only a matter of time before your doors re-open, if they haven’t already. Small and subtle actions from EHS, HR, management, and beyond can make a big difference in the sentiment and comfort levels around another big change in the lives of employees.

Much of it comes down to preparation and care — two factors that EHS leaders have the opportunity to directly influence in the mission to create a safe, healthy, environment. This is a moment for EHS to solidify its role in corporate leadership and highlight the importance of the work.

Above all, keep flexibility and adaptability at the forefront of your planning. Many companies are looking ahead to the reality of hybrid workplaces, with some employees in the office and others working remotely. Determining how this will be handled and who will make decisions around remote work — is it up to the worker, or dependent on their role and its needs — is another key consideration.

Stay tuned to our blog for further guidance and advice on managing these scenarios from an EHS perspective.

Want to help prepare your company for reopening? Check out some more tips here.

Want more news and insights like this?

Sign up for our monthly e-newsletter, The New Leaf. Our goal is to keep you updated, educated, and even a bit entertained as it relates to all things EHS and sustainability.

Get e-Newsletter