What To Expect When Returning To Work During COVID-19

Jennifer Herrity

Updated March 29, 2021

Published July 10, 2020

Jennifer Herrity is a seasoned career services professional with 12+ years of experience in career coaching, recruiting and leadership roles with the purpose of helping others to find their best-fit jobs. She helps people navigate the job search process through one-on-one career coaching, webinars, workshops, articles and career advice videos on Indeed's YouTube channel.

As more businesses are reopening, employers continue to make operational decisions based on state and local mandates related to COVID-19 as well as preparedness to protect the health and safety of their employees and customers.

If you've been furloughed, laid off, had your hours cut or were asked to work from home, it may be true that your employer asks you to return to the workplace at some point depending on when and how they are ready to reopen.

In this article, we’ll cover business operation updates you might experience, likely changes to your work environment, how you can expect to work with others and suggestions on how you can feel protected when returning to work.

Changes to business operations

Here are some common operational changes you might expect to see when returning to work:

Daily health screenings before the start of work

If working onsite, you might notice new procedures to assess your health before the workday begins. The CDC recommends employers to conduct private, daily health checks before the employee comes to the workplace or upon arrival at the workplace. These health checks can be in-person or virtual and should be made in accordance with state and local health authorities.

Daily health screenings may check for a variety of symptoms consistent with having COVID-19, such as high fever. The screening process might include being asked to confirm that your temperature is less than 100.4°F or 38.0°C and that you are not coughing or experiencing shortness of breath. They might also look for flushed cheeks or fatigue. If the screening is being conducted in person, the screening staff does not have to wear Personal Protective Equipment, also called PPE, if they can maintain a distance of 6 feet.

Increased communication about your health

Communication about your health and exposure to others who are sick may become increasingly important. When returning to the workplace you might also expect employers to be more vigilant about encouraging sick employees to stay home. It’s recommended that employees who show symptoms of COVID-19 (including but not limited to, fever, cough, shortness of breath, and sore throat) should notify their employer, stay home and not return to work until the criteria to discontinue home isolation are met. You should inform your employer immediately if you find out that you have been exposed to someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 even if you are not showing symptoms.

How to be proactive

You can be proactive by asking your employer what efforts they are making to ensure the health and safety of their team as they return to the workplace. Ask what procedures are in place if someone becomes sick at work or if you’re exposed to someone who gets sick while at work.

If you use public transportation to get to work, ask your employer if they can offer alternatives to reduce your risk for exposure like shifting your work hours so you can commute during less busy times or ensure that you have the opportunity to wash your hands as soon as possible when arriving at work.

Changes to the work environment

Required face coverings

When returning to work you can also expect to be encouraged or even required to wear cloth face coverings. Depending on the type of work you do, OSHA may require you to wear PPE after a hazard assessment is completed. If this is the case, you can expect the appropriate PPE to be provided for you and to be trained on how to use it correctly.

Attention to handwashing

Handwashing continues to be recommended as a best practice for reducing your risk of exposure. The CDC recommends that you wash your hands for at least 20 seconds at key times including:

  • Before and after work shifts and work breaks

  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing

  • After using the restroom

  • Before eating or preparing food

  • And after putting on, touching, or removing cloth face coverings

Cleaning and sanitization

When you’re back in the workplace, consider practicing routine cleaning of frequently touched objects like workstations, keyboards, telephones, biometric keypads and POS systems. To limit potential exposure, avoid using other employees’ phones, desks, offices and work equipment whenever possible. If it can’t be avoided, clean and disinfect them before and after use.

Remote work

Another change to the work environment that you can expect is extended to semi-permanent work from home options, when possible. The CDC has recommended that employers offer remote work for roles that can be performed virtually.

How to be proactive

If remote work is not an option for you, ask your employer what other options are available. If you are immuno-compromised or otherwise at an increased risk of serious illness, ask your manager if there are other opportunities or tasks available that might limit your contact with customers or other employees. For example, if you work in retail, this might include stocking shelves versus working as a cashier.

Changes to how you work with others

You will likely notice advised changes to how you work with others when you return to work with continued emphasis on social distancing. Here are some other ways employers may implement social distancing in the workplace:

Creating physical distance

You can expect extra care taken to keep workers and customers at a distance or physically separated. In addition to remote work, some of the strategies that have been recommended by the CDC include:

  • Offering flexible work hours like rotating or staggering shifts to limit the number of workers in the building at the same time

  • Modifying workspaces to increase the physical space between workstations

  • Creating space between staff and customers by offering “drive-thru” service options, adding partitions between customers and employees, or delivering services virtually by phone or video

You can also expect to see an increase in visual markers encouraging distance and cleanliness. While we’re all used to seeing signs encouraging staff to wash their hands before returning to work, now you can expect to see decals or tape marks indicating where to stand to remain 6 feet apart.

You might be experiencing changes in how you meet and collaborate with others already, and you should expect this to continue. In-person meetings will likely be held in accordance with state and local regulations and guidance and work-related travel may be restricted.

Another change you might see is limited or closed access to common meeting areas like breakrooms, kitchens or lounge areas.

How to be proactive

Ask if there are any new company policies related to sick time, cleaning and sanitization of your work area and work meetings and travel.

Deciding when to return to work

In addition to knowing what to expect when you go back to work, an even bigger question might be how to know when the time is right for you to return. If your employer has reopened your workplace, you might return out of financial necessity or weigh your decision based on both your financial position and the potential health risks associated.

For example, you may not have the ability to prolong returning to work after the additional $600 a week in unemployment insurance ends on or before July 31, if the benefits are not extended.

If you’re already employed, having a conversation about what steps your employer is taking to reduce employees’ risk and exposure can be the first step. If you’re looking for a new job, asking the question “How is your company protecting its employees from exposure to the coronavirus?” or “What is this company’s protocol when an employee has been exposed to COVID-19?” can help to alleviate some of your questions about health and safety.

While you may experience limited options about when you have to return to work due to financial need, you can evaluate companies by how they are responding to the pandemic and the precautions they are taking to protect their employees. The decision about when to go back to work is a personal one and will depend on the needs of you and your family.

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