As many companies are beginning to see employees return to the workplace as COVID-19 restrictions ease, it’s really important to have strict rules in place about social distancing in the office while the virus is still present in the community.
As an employer, you have both a legal and moral duty to provide your employees with a safe workplace (the so-called duty of care). In the time of COVID-19, this includes ensuring that any employees you require to be present at one of your company’s physical locations are able to observe safe social distancing while on your premises. For other employees who work outside of your premises, for example, traveling salespeople, you should also make it clear what is expected of them in keeping a safe distance from others.
What is social distancing at work?
The CDC says that coronavirus spreads in one of two main ways: either through droplets that are produced by sneezes and coughs or between people who are within approximately six feet of one another.
By staying six feet away from other people as much as possible, the virus is less likely to spread. One of the problems with COVID-19 is that some people who have it never actually display any symptoms. By practicing social distancing in the workplace, people can reduce the risk of catching the virus from an asymptomatic carrier.
Rules of social distancing in the workplace
The following rules should be implemented in the workplace, wherever practical, to keep your employees and customers safe:
1. Ban physical contact
Employees should greet without physical contact such as handshakes and hugs while interacting with one another. Social distancing at work means employees should also refrain from sharing personal items such as clothing, glasses, cups or chapstick.
2. Change meeting protocols
If meetings aren’t essential, don’t hold them at all. In most cases, phone calls, emails and instant messaging can suffice. If a group of people must meet face-to-face use videoconferencing or teleconferencing facilities. Any large gatherings should be held off until a later date when it is safe to do so and social distancing at work is no longer necessary.
3. Avoid unnecessary business travel
Until the overall social distancing at work situation is much safer, non-essential business travel should be canceled or postponed.
4. Put limits on the numbers of employees in common areas
Facilities where many employees are likely to congregate at once, such as meeting rooms, copier rooms, break rooms and kitchen areas will need special attention. Some of these facilities may need to be closed or have chess limited temporarily.
Employees should be encouraged to eat at their desks wherever possible, to limit the spread of COVID in the workplace.
Shared rides in the elevator should also be avoided.
5. Implement a no-visitor policy
If it is feasible in the workplace, you can limit numbers of people by only allowing your authorised employees to attend your premises.
Setting your office up for social distancing
For social distancing to work in the office, you may have to redesign your office set-up and also put other measures in place to limit the total number of employees you have on site at any given time.
You may need to change your office layout to ensure that desks are placed at least six feet apart. Other measures in the workplace such as raising cubicle walls, creating partitions, installing Perspex shields and dividers can also help to enforce social distancing in the office and keep employees safe.
You can put markings on the floor that are six feet apart to show where people can stand and know they are keeping a safe distance.
Workplaces, where there are frequent visitors coming and going, may need more space created as well as separate entries and exits.
To minimize the numbers of employees on site you could implement different work schedules, for example different stat and finish times for different employees. Another way is to have different teams of people working on-site or working at home at any given time.
Of course, if your employees are able to do their work from home, the safest thing to keep doing for the foreseeable future is to have work from home continue wherever possible, making your overall social distancing at work more effective.
Social distance in the workplace: how to communicate the new rules
For your social distancing at work to be effective, it is critical that you communicate your guidelines to your employees.
Because the new measures in the workplace may take some time to get used to, you may need to communicate the measures in different ways, multiple times, to help your employees to retain the information.
Ways of communicating your social distancing guidelines for the workplace include:
- Placing your formal social distancing at work policy on a location that can be easily found, such as a prominent place on your intranet or corporate social media sites.
- Sending emails to all employees.
- Sending pop-up alerts or scrolling desktop tickers via a system like DeskAlerts containing a link to the guidelines.
- Posters and other signage in the workplace.
- Using digital signage displays on any TV screens throughout your workplace.
- Via corporate wallpapers or screensavers reminding your employees of protocols around social distancing at work.
One of the most effective ways to promote a social distancing policy at work is by using the lock and login screens of the staff workstations. Each time an employee logs in to their computer, they will see your message, reminding them of the necessity to maintain distance. Statistically, employees log in to their computer every morning and 3-4 times during the working day. An additional plus is that this message won’t interrupt their work.
What to do if employees don’t follow the social distancing rules
As an employer, you have the right to require that your employees follow any social distancing at work rules in order to create a safe workplace. This is no different from requiring employees to follow any other health and safety rules in the workplace.
Make it clear to employees that there will be consequences for flouting the rules. This could include official warnings, docked pay or even dismissal if the breaches of your social distancing guidelines for the workplace are deliberate and continuous.
Social distance in the workplace might take some getting used to: our corporate cultures have evolved over time to be social and inclusive and we naturally gravitate towards other human beings who we spend so much time with each day.
In the short to medium term social distancing measures are going to be a necessary evil that will hamper organisational culture and may even slow up productivity in the workplace, but is outweighed by the benefits to keeping your people safe and slowing the spread of the virus.