We can’t all work from home forever, though one could be forgiven for trying right now. The steep rise in new cases of COVID-19 nationally is driven by significant growth in new cases or positive test rates in a majority of states. Rates of transmission indicate that this upward trend is likely to continue. Yet the office awaits in some shape or form for most of us who have yet to return.
We are asking a lot of employers.
While federal, state, and municipal authorities have provided guidance for workplace safety, the responsibility and decisions around how to interpret, prioritize, and implement this guidance are left to employers. This is a particularly heavy weight to bear for employers who lack the benefit of public health or scientific expertise.
Many employers are struggling to find sustainable solutions. Too many of the stories we hear about returning to the workplace characterize new safety measures as a choice among varieties of high-tech solutions. It is fair to ask what awaits the many businesses that cannot afford such measures. What is a company to do when facial recognition software or sensors for electronically managing employees’ social distance are beyond its means?
Sustainable solutions start with training.
We need a more inclusive vision of how employers move forward during COVID-19. It should be centered on the most fundamental, cost-efficient, and adaptable strategy that any company can pursue in response to this crisis. The heart of this solution is training employees to work safely.
It is very tempting to turn to gadgets and physical solutions to fight this invisible foe. Stuff is more fun to talk about than training. It can require less time, at least in the short-term. The acts of purchase and implementation can themselves bring a sense of accomplishment, creating the perception of safety regardless of whether we are actually safer.
What happens when we start elsewhere?
Several things can happen when companies are urged to focus on physical solutions at the expense of training and knowledge:
1. Companies feel priced out.
Focusing on products can leave many companies, particularly smaller ones, with the impression that they cannot afford to make their workplace safe for employees and customers. Informed training, supported by protocols and properly used PPE, is sufficient for most smaller businesses to open safely on a manageable budget. Technology can be used judiciously and cost-efficiently to augment these measures.
2. Interventions compromise safety.
Even the most essential safety measures require proper adherence. We know that masks are perhaps the most effective and affordable way to protect those around us, but we also know that masks can become an infection risk to both the individual and their colleagues when used improperly. Companies should be committing to training and periodically refreshing all staff on how to use PPE safely.
3. Businesses leave value on the table.
A common understanding of safe behaviors makes it easier to avoid unnecessary investments and get full value from beneficial ones. Technology to survey staff on potential symptoms can be a powerful tool. Once it is implemented, staff will need to be secure that they can report their symptoms without negative consequences. Technology is a conduit for bad information, not a solution to it. Companies should be asking themselves how confident they are that they have created the policies and culture that allow for this dialog before relying on any product.
4. New behaviors don’t persist.
Technology and physical changes can give a boost to new habits, but training is necessary to sustain compliance. An altered floor plan is, for most companies, an essential element of the new workplace. Staff will need to be trained in what the redesign accomplishes in order for it to provide any benefit. Companies whose staff understand and can explain to others the connection between the physical space and infection risk can be confident that the safe use of space will continue over time.
5. Employees feel alienated.
This crisis is an opportunity to engage employees and build a resilient culture. Like any opportunity it can be wasted. Employees will receive the message if conversations around compliance outnumber conversations around safety and personal well-being. If unsafe behaviors undermine physical solutions, it will be much harder to convince employees that they are safe in the workplace regardless of how effective these tools can be.
Where do we go from here?
The companies that adapt and thrive through this crisis will be the ones that equip employees to better understand, assess, and respond to risks. This requires that everyone build durable new knowledge and habits around personal safety, and feel confident in using their own judgment to manage the infection risk to themselves and others. Technology and physical solutions can and must support these changes, but they are not a substitute for them.
It has become a common refrain in some circles that we will innovate our way out of this crisis. This may be true in time. The companies that succeed at learning their way through working during COVID-19 will be the ones that survive long enough to find out. We are committed to supporting that learning and we are here for your team if you need us.