We all know folks who have made throwing on work clothes, reading the newspaper on the train, ordering their carefully customized coffee, and heading into the office with their leather briefcase in hand an important part of their identity. And yet we know just as many others who would prefer to sleep-in an extra hour and commute downstairs to their home office. The former category may have experienced an identity crisis, and the latter may have found something of a silver lining in shelter-in-place orders. But change is in sight with the forthcoming resumption of non-essential business operations. Many are now wondering what the workplace will look like in the wake of Covid-19. Here’s a glimpse of four likely changes to get ready for.
1. When employees arrive at work, they can expect to have to undergo various testing and health-related questionnaires.
To begin, many employers are likely to take their employees’ temperature given that fever is a common symptom of Covid-19. Is that permissible? Yes, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has concluded temperature taking is permissible because the Americans with Disabilities Act allows such examinations where an employee’s medical condition will pose a “direct threat,” and Covid-19 meets that standard. As a practical matter, though, temperature screenings may have only a limited utility because employees with Covid-19 may be asymptomatic.
Employers may also use diagnostic testing before permitting employees to enter the workplace. The EEOC has concluded that this practice is permissible as well. There are practical considerations with this approach, though, given that there is only a finite amount of testing equipment available to employers (employers can’t be expected to conduct diagnostic testing of every employee at the beginning of every workday), and an employee could get infected with Covid-19 any time after being tested.
Also, expect employers to require employees to fill out screening questionnaires before they return to work—and possibly even daily—with inquiries such as whether they have tested positive for Covid-19, have any reason to believe they have the virus, or have been exposed to others who have tested positive.
2. Employers are apt to take a range of steps to prevent coronavirus from spreading in the workplace through hygienic practices and PPE.
Expect to see employers require employees to step up hygienic practices. Employers surely will be discouraging employees from shaking hands; encouraging the frequent use of hand sanitizer and disinfectant; encouraging employees to routinely clean their workspaces; and cleaning workspaces after shifts end and common areas periodically throughout the day.
And, it will not be surprising to see employers providing or encouraging the use of personal protective equipment, such as face masks or coverings. Some states are even requiring this. You’ll just have to get used to talking with co-workers while both of your faces are covered.
3. Employers can be expected to take various approaches to physically distancing employees.
Employers may schedule employees in staggered shifts so that as few employees are present in the workplace as practicable at any given time. Meal and break times likely will be staggered so that few employees congregate in break rooms or elsewhere.
Employers may also alter seating arrangements to separate employees and also may limit the direction of hallways and other types of rows.
And, employers also may limit the number of individuals who may attend in-person meetings, opting instead for meetings through Zoom, WebEx and similar on-line collaboration tools. (Yes, employees who are in the office and down the hall from one another may be meeting-up through Zoom.)
With all of this said, let’s not forget that employers can be expected to require remote work where that makes sense—especially where they have witnessed positive results of remote working amid the pandemic and given that public authorities are likely to encourage the continuation of such arrangements even as stay at home orders are relaxed.
4. Employers can be expected to limit in-person interactions between employees and customers.
Employers likely will impose distance requirements for in-person meetings between employees and customers. In this vein, employers can be expected to prohibit or severely limit non-essential travel and office visitors, again emphasizing the utility of on-line collaboration tools as an alternative to in-person meetings. This yields cost savings but may hinder the type of personal touches that are an important part of developing and maintaining customer relationships.
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With the foregoing in mind, it’s noteworthy that New York has issued guidance on Governor Cuomo’s New York Forward Plan, which requires businesses to develop a health and safety plan to protect employees and consumers, make the workplace safer and implement processes that lower the risk of infection. It would not be surprising to see other jurisdictions follow suit.
No one knows how long these changes will last. It’ll depend upon the extent to which incidents of coronavirus infections go down, the increased availability of testing, and possibly when a vaccine is developed and available. In the meantime, employees will need to be vigilant about the health and safety of themselves and their co-workers while adapting to a “new normal” for an indefinite period of time.