Ever since the outbreak of coronavirus in March 2020 in India, work from home has emerged as the new normal. It has undoubtedly given a new lesson to HR in business agility and would now become integral to workplace policy.
However, work from home is not a feasible option for manufacturing and allied industries, financial services, pharmaceutical, R&D, real estate and many other sectors. It is not a long-term option for IT and ITeS companies either. Organizations are facing several challenges – a slowdown of production, slump in productivity, ineffective team collaboration and communication and technology issues to name a few. Most importantly, there is a huge uncertainty looming over the end of the ongoing pandemic. It appears that the pandemic is here to stay for many months till it is brought in complete control or a vaccine is developed. The question that arises now is – till when can organizations keep their workplaces closed?
Well, not for long, apparently.
Amidst the rising number of cases and frequent lockdowns, India Inc. is now mulling over reopening workplaces and calling employees to resume onsite working. Even the employees are keen to return to their physical workspaces. According to JLL Work from Home Experience Survey conducted, 82% of Indian employees are eager to go back to offices.
Now, while both employers and employees are ready for post-COVID 19 transition to offices, workplace safety is a key challenge and concern. 93% of Indian employees are stressed about resuming onsite work due to apprehensions about their health and safety as per the findings of a survey undertaken by health tech community product FYI. Employers are on the same page, with 71% of organizations putting the safety of employees as a top business priority as highlighted in a 'Global Survey COVID-19: Impact on Business' conducted by executive research firm EMA Partners across 25 countries, including India.
This puts the onus on HR to create safer workplaces as employees return to work amidst the fear of pandemic. Here is a comprehensive checklist for HR to work actively and consciously in this direction:
- Adherence to Official Guidelines
The Indian Ministry of Health Affairs and the World Health Organization (WHO) has laid down latest guidelines for workplace safety. These guidelines are also revised from time to time, depending on the status of COVID-19 situation across the country and as we learn more about the virus. It is strongly recommended that HR implements all these measures and also follows state or local body advisory, if any.
- Zero Compromise in Workplace Sanitization
This may seem a basic measure, but its effectiveness can be rendered useless if not done properly. HR would need to tighten housekeeping practices and integrate them with employee health and safety strategy. It will be pertinent for HR to ensure daily and frequent sanitization of work premises.
- For example, Panasonic Life Solutions India fumigates and sanitizes its office premises every two hours and RPG Group has hired professional services firms for sanitization activities.
- Tata Steel, Dalmia Cement, NTPC and many others have also formed dedicated anti-COVID teams and appointed safety marshals/champions/auditors to supervise sanitization round the clock.
Organizations also need to undertake emergency disinfection if someone tests positive for coronavirus on site. In such an event employees should be sent home on priority and called back the next day or only when sanitization is complete.
It is also equally important to do contact tracing in such situations to curb the spread of infection at the workplace. This can be done by ensuring that all employees have downloaded the Aarogya Setu app (official COVID-19 contact tracing app by the government of India) on their mobile apps and keep their versions updated. As per the directive of the Union Home Ministry, this app is mandatory for all private and public sector employees. Further, the employees who have come in contact with the infected person should be swiftly instructed to undergo medical tests and self-quarantine/work from home for the required period.
- Availability and Disposal of Safety Essentials
HR would need to make it mandatory for employees to wear protective gear in the office, depending on the nature of their activities and during human interactions. The company would need to put sanitization essentials such as masks, face shields, gloves, protective gear and auto-dispensing sanitizers throughout the premises for easy access for employees. However, the increase in the stock of these essentials also means that the companies will have to find a safe and responsible bio-medical waste management system.
- Staggered Approach to Workplace Reopening
HR will require to develop a system to call employees back to work in a phased manner. Or else, it could be a workplace safety nightmare. It is advisable to open offices for only a limited staff for a few weeks and then gradually increase the number as per the regulatory guidelines and only if adequate workplace safety measures are in place.
Capgemini has introduced an in-house app called ‘Namaste Capgemini’ which requires employees to self-declare the status of their health every day before commuting to the office. This app has a geo-location algorithm and analytical capabilities to authorize employees to return to office in a phased manner, depending on their health, recent travel history, location of travel and other parameters.
Axis Bank planned re-opening of its offices and branches in three phases – 10% staff strength in May, 30% in July, and 60% in from August onwards.
- Workplace and Employee Commute Redesign
Employers will need to remodel the workplace to ensure that employees adhere to social distancing norms. This calls for separating the workstations/shop floors/meeting rooms/cafeterias/other common usage areas by dividers or panels depending on the existing infrastructure and space of the office premises. Workplace redesign will also include rethinking floor plans, managing people traffic on the site and installing touch-free door mechanisms.
- Flipkart-owned Myntra has separated its warehouse workstations and cafeteria seats by partitions.
- Wipro has created zones and partitions at work desks, pantries, restrooms and cafeteria.
- Maruti Suzuki has reduced employee bus capacity by 50%. Every employee has to maintain social distancing while boarding and deboarding.
- Godrej Appliances has installed automatic door operating systems at every entry point.
- Micron India has created one-way movement patterns for elevators, hallways and stairs.
- Technology-Driven Solutions
While there are cost challenges associated with technology, it will nevertheless become crucial to ensure employee safety. Employers will also need to harness technology to detect and monitor employee health, automate business operations to minimize human contact and provide contactless biometrics. COVID-19 could be the right opportunity for organizations to embrace or scale artificial intelligence and other technologies.
Several Indian companies have already incorporated tech-enabled smart solutions for workplace safety:
- Bharat Forge has developed AI-based Health Risk Monitoring System (HRMS), which is currently being deployed at its locations pan-India. This HRMS integrates contactless thermal screening with RFID badge readers given to employees. It also runs algorithms on surveillance CCTV cameras to send alerts when social distancing norms are violated on-premises.
- Tech Mahindra has introduced Book My Seat and Cafeteria/Canteen apps which automatically allow employees to maintain social distancing rules for seating arrangements.
- RC Enterprises, an electronic appliances manufacturing firm has deployed seven humanoid robots that do the thermal screening at the entrance and take employee attendance through facial recognition. They can carry files from one desk to another and even operate the elevator!
- Additional Measures
Going a step further in COVID-19 workplace safety, many companies have implemented extra measures for precaution:
- Capgemini allows only up to two people in office elevators and one person seated diagonally opposite the driver during the commute. The company’s Bengaluru branch also has a doctor on site facility.
- Infosys has put up a life-size signage regarding workplace safety guidelines along with the QR code scan of Aarogya Setu app at the entrance of its Bengaluru office.
- Wipro has installed disinfectant walkway enclosures at its campuses and factories.
- Tech Mahindra has launched the AI-based collaborative tool ‘TechmighTea’ that randomly invites two employees from the organization over a virtual cup of tea to replicate water cooler conversations and eliminate the health risk by human contact.
All the measures listed above will go a long way in assuring employees about workplace safety when they resume onsite duties. Even so, returning to work should be a choice for employees – if they want to work from home, employers should let them. Employee health and safety should be the foremost priority, nothing else should matter more for organizations to show that they care.