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Published on Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Preparing to reopen: What you need to do

As the Government begins to ease lockdown measures and travel companies prepare to re-open offices, calls centres and travel agencies, workplace health and safety specialist Healix International gives some advice on what you need to do to protect employees and customers from Covid-19.



Prior to re-opening 

Before employees enter the premises, the office should undergo an incredibly thorough cleaning. Once people have returned, a rigorous disinfection schedule must be implemented, ensuring that high-touch surfaces, including the inside and outside of all doors, are wiped with alcohol wipes every few hours. 

There needs to be a copious amount of disinfecting supplies, antibacterial soap, disposable paper towels and alcohol hand sanitiser present onsite prior to the first day of re-opening. Cleaning protocols and behavioural signage showing proper execution of said protocols must be posted throughout the site, particularly at all building entrances, elevator areas and each floor, department or separate space. The organisation may also wish to institute temperature-reading devices at all entry points in order to provide additional peace of mind.

Advice to staff

Masks / face coverings should be mandatory during the commute to work in the event that there is close proximity to others, such as use of public transport or car share arrangements. This may or may not be advised by the government, but it can be implemented and enforced by your organisation's Human Resources department. 

Careful consideration should be taken by individual organisations as to whether or not it is appropriate to recommend that masks be worn in the workplace. There may be issues with adequate supply of masks or other reasons why it is inappropriate. It is also important to delineate between medical masks and cloth face coverings. Cloth face coverings can be washed and re-used and are a bit more comfortable for extended use. Medical masks are thought to be no more effective at preventing transmission than cloth face coverings. 

Changes to layout

In order to maintain appropriate physical distancing, fundamental changes must be made to the office space and the way in which it is navigated. This means that some chairs should be removed from conference rooms and other common areas. Brightly coloured tape should be used on floors to delineate safe zones in the office environment for individuals to stand or sit an appropriate distance from one another. There should be a one-way flow through all entry and exit points as well as the office environment as a whole in order to minimise the chance of people unintentionally bumping into one another. Areas designated for a specific department should be colour-zoned, and employees should have wrist bands or badges that reflect their assigned colour zone, with permission required to enter another colour zone. 

The number of people allowed to ride together in elevators needs to be restricted in order to comply with social distancing, which in many cases may mean only one person at a time. Coloured tape should also be used in elevators to dictate capacity as well as where people should stand.

Shared spaces

Office kitchens and break areas are going to require specific and very clearly outlined rules. Gone are the days of shared items like peanut butter, jam or cream cheese, biscuits and birthday cakes. In general, any eating/food preparation areas will either need strict distancing of diners or will need to be designated as take-out only with employees going out to an appropriate space where they can socially distance. All food and drink available to employees must be single-use and individually wrapped. 


The organisation must give thought not only to the people - but also the items coming into the office environment. There must be a designated area for all deliveries, whether in the form of mail, packages or pallets of supplies. In the case of mail in the office environment, there will need to be two separate areas: one for unpacking potentially contaminated materials with facilities to dispose of the packaging into closed bins, as well as space for people to wash their hands immediately after. The adjoining 'clean' area can then be a distribution point for contents of packaging to the intended recipients. In the case of sensitive/confidential items, the recipient may have to be responsible for this process.

Building confidence

In many ways, the most important role of an organisation in this scenario is to instil confidence in employees that it is safe to return to work. We have all spent weeks in lockdown with the constant message that we must stay home for the greater good of ourselves, our family members and the community at large. The task is now to persuade people that it is safe to come out and start to integrate again. Communication with employees is more critical at this time than ever before. Anxiety around the return to work is going to be understandably high, and the more information people are equipped with, the better off everyone will be. A return to office plan should include a phased timeline for when essential employees should expect to report to the office - keeping in mind that anyone who can continue to work from home should continue to do so as much as their role will allow. 

Staggering the start

Where office layouts or seating arrangements do not allow for appropriate distance between individuals, a staggered remote work schedule should be outlined. Staggered start times should be introduced where business requirements allow, avoiding busy travel times as much as possible. Staff should be informed of increased cleaning measures and behavioural expectations. An updated floor plan with designated areas for disposal of masks and gloves as well as hand washing stations should be distributed prior to employees' return. A comprehensive outline of all the site measures listed above should be shared with the internal team, as providing the highest possible level of transparency helps to bolster confidence and increase employee morale. 

Organisations must also consider policies that will require revision in the wake of the Covid- 19 pandemic. Temporary elimination of conference rooms and break areas may be necessary. Pre-site screening mandates and visitor policies must be reviewed and enforced. A declaration of the absence of symptoms or contact with a Covid-19 positive individual should be mandatory before anyone enters or visits the site. Where feasible, it may be best that anyone entering the site undergoes a rapid Covid-19 test, proving that they do not have the virus. 

What happens if an employee gets Covid-19?

There must also be a response plan in place for what to do in the event that an employee tests positive. The ability to communicate such an update to everyone on site is critical. There should be a team tasked with updating Business Continuity Plans; specifically, a plan around what to do if cases in your region begin to increase. The team must determine, based on your organisation's risk appetite, what thresholds should trigger a secondary shutdown. 

Taking care of mental health

As much as the physical considerations of re-opening are important, so too is the mental wellbeing of employees coming out of quarantine. Even though the entire world has endured this pandemic, each individual has had their own experience, and in some cases, trauma. It is important to foster an environment of openness and provide resources to those that have general anxieties and legitimate concerns as they return to work. This can mean having a helpline for people to call or designating a member of the Human Resources team to manage employee concerns in confidence. 


The Covid-19 pandemic is one of the most remarkable and impactful events in recent history; how organisations and individuals alike treat others during this time will become a lasting part of their legacy. 


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