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A Workplace That Works For Us

The novel coronavirus has upended systems of work the world over. As we discuss lifting lockdown measures, we know the new normal will be different. How can we get used to new ways of remote working? Jameel Smith discusses.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) has not only pressed the reset button on how we view personal hygiene, but has reset the way we work. Suddenly, long commutes are replaced with healthier morning routines, there is new flexibility with respect to working and checking off tasks, and overall, we have more control over our work-life balance. This reset to working is, of course, working remotely/working from home. Even though employers may say differently, COVID-19 has proven thus far to be this century’s biggest foe. Employers and employees must now help to answer the question; how can production and public health and safety coalesce?

Working remotely - a situation where based on the type of work, employees complete their tasks mainly from home and communicate with the company (or employer) using technology (emails, video calls etc.) - is one of the main ways in which public health and productivity can be combined for our benefit. The ease with which someone can become infected has forced employers (conservative or otherwise) to adapt to the idea of remote work, since governments worldwide are trying to limit mass gatherings as a part of social distancing. 

“Overall, working from home doesn’t change your day-to-day work, it just means you’ll be doing it from a different environment.”

– Jennifer Christie, Twitter’s Head of HR

There are numerous pros and cons to working remotely. However, during this global pandemic, it is imperative that the workplace (and employees), where possible, adjust to this new trend. Transmission from asymptomatic individuals is one of the main causes of the ever-increasing number of cases. Given the mild nature of the symptoms in some cases, many persons are unaware that they have been infected. Working from home diminishes the risk of transmission, giving both infected and non-infected persons the chance to self-quarantine, while limiting workplace productivity loss as much as possible. Even though working remotely may be unprecedented for some employers and employees, the global situation is unprecedented, and so, their response to it must also be unprecedented. The workplace, like Darwin’s finches, must evolve. 

Other adaptations should be made in the workplace itself, and work best when there is a healthy relationship between employer and employees. Though some workplaces do not have such healthy relationships, COVID-19 (not disregarding the devastating impact the virus has wreaked upon the global population) has ultimately forced us to work on creating better relationships with our peers and employers by reminding us to be supportive and understanding of each other during this time. Initially, the workplace or employer should provide an avenue to not only discuss the employer’s plans to combat this crisis, but also to hear employee concerns regarding health, job security and coping tactics.

This kind of approach goes a long way in alleviating concerns and correcting misinformation, which in turn produces an informed and productive environment. In this kind of environment, employees with symptoms should be actively encouraged to not only contact their employers but to stay at home. These measures reduce the chance of contaminating surfaces and possibly infecting other employees. Employers must ensure that their sick leave policies are flexible — even to the extent of permitting employees to stay at home to care for sick family members.

Improving on-job hygiene and sanitization is also very important, especially due to the fact that many individuals with the disease are asymptomatic. According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine (2020), COVID-19 was detectable in aerosols for up to 3 hours, 24 hours on cardboard boxes, and 2–3 days on plastics, stainless steel and other hard surfaces. The importance of cough and sneeze etiquette and hand hygiene must be emphasized. 

Such emphasis can be easily reinforced with posters around the office, or with the introduction of work drills such as hourly wash hand rotations using the 20 second soap and water washing routine (or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with 60–95% alcohol for impromptu situations). Employers can introduce routine environmental cleaning procedures by sanitizing frequently used areas (countertops, door knobs etc.). An even more efficient approach would be allocating disposable wipes in high-usage areas for employees, allowing them to clean these areas before and after use (keyboards, door knobs, desks, door handles etc.).

Even simpler initiatives may include acquiring employee information regarding recent or future travel plans, making alterations to their work schedules to include time for self-quarantine/isolation, converting in-person meetings to remote conference calls, and most importantly, considering extra precautions for staff that might be more vulnerable (e.g. someone who is pregnant, aged over 70 or who suffers from long-term health conditions).

In fighting against the virus, it has now become imperative for the workplace, our “home away from home”, to serve us. It is said that on average, a person spends a third of their life at work. A third too much, some may say. Without getting into the minutiae of having more say in controlling your means of production, the workplace has a responsibility to protect its employees' interests as they have protected its interests. In fact, during the pandemic, the workplace should be socially called upon to protect not only their employees, but also their families and wider society. After all, without workers, what would be left?

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