COVID-19 and its reeling effects on the workplace

The Covid-19 pandemic arrived without warning and took the entire world by surprise. It is not that the world has not seen epidemics or pandemics before. COVID-19 and its reeling effects on the workplace has a huge global impact. The Black Death or Bubonic Plague of the 1300s, the Cholera Pandemic in 1910, and the SARS pandemic in 2005 had affected millions of people, however, in all cases, the effects were confined to a particular geographical region. None of them immobilized the entire world in one go. 

With the spread of Covid-19, new norms and in some cases a new lifestyle have emerged for many of us. This lifestyle has not been confined to one profession, class, creed, region, or location, it has become universal for all. From personal hygiene to social distancing norms, from lockdowns to multiple vaccine trials, from Work from Home practices to multiple layoffs, the world has seen a lot of changes in the last few months.

The Covid-19 is different from all its predecessors in one aspect, and that is its impact. It has affected millions of lives and brought about an ever-lasting change in all domains: social, economic, cultural, and political. While the medical community is still trying to understand the Coronavirus, this epidemic continues to wreak havoc on all of us. 

With complete lockdowns in multiple countries, workplaces have been the worst hit. Along with hampered productivity and economic activity, the workplaces have seen a paradigm shift in the way they operate. 

In the months after the outbreak of Coronavirus, workplaces have seen different phases. The first phase was the lockdown, putting a complete stop to economic activity, manufacturing activities, factory production, business travel, trade activities and caused complete business disruption.The automobile sector, manufacturing industry, aviation industry, hospitality sector, travel, and tourism industry were among the worst-hit businesses. When physical proximity became a paramount issue, companies shifted to the virtual medium for maintaining business continuity. Advanced technology has proved to be a big help in these times. Many industries, regardless of how tech-enabled they were before the pandemic, have now adapted to technology fairly well. Work from Home became the new normal, and many businesses have had to resort to it. Subsequently, there has been a dual focus on reducing the transmission of Coronavirus and boosting the economy. Thus, many countries have seen an easing of restrictions since the initial lockdown and business operations have started again, but with more restrictions and stringent guidelines in place.

Corporates are striving to bring everything back on track. However, in a situation where human interaction is limited, it can become quite challenging to remain productive or even stay connected. However convenient the  WFH (Work from Home) option is for employees; it poses some inevitable challenges for companies and businesses. Some of these challenges are:

  1. Impact on organizational processes – In many businesses, the existing processes require field visits, physical examinations, physical signatures. With the shift to remote working, companies have to digitize these processes and come up with alternate arrangements for the same end result. Effective communication is also necessary in this regard. 
  2. Impact on Policies – Some companies have stringent policies related to WFH. These organizations might need to consider relaxing or adjusting certain policies relating to working from home.
  3. Tools and protocols for daily operations – Coordinating daily activities and business operations virtually can be a challenging task.Thus, communication becomes a key component of remote working. Companies should use the necessary tools and platforms to communicate effectively so the business can run as smoothly as possible. 
  4. Impact on business – Travel restrictions have disrupted business and supply chain networks. WFH cannot help in tackling all these challenges and companies will have to figure a way around to deal with some of these issues.
  5. Safety concerns – For some professionals, operating from physical locations is mandatory. Thus, companies have an added burden of also managing safety in the workplace for their employees.

In unprecedented times like these, companies need to step up and provide a safe and conducive environment for their employees, to not just survive, but to also thrive in this scenario.

How companies can tackle the COVID-19 and its reeling effects on the workplace

The health sector is doing its bit to flatten the curve for the Covid-19. All over the world, the medical community is engaged in research to find a suitable vaccine and health workers are working round the clock to provide medical services. All these services are essential but something equally vital is providing financial stability. Many people have lost their employment and are now facing a financial crisis, and although companies need to make necessary cutbacks, certain corporate giants must also do their public duty in times like these.

Another important aspect is bringing a cultural shift in the mindset of both individuals and companies. Uncertainty and anxiety can become all-encompassing thus, employers should be empathetic and provide constant support and encouragement. They should,

  • Provide a flexible working environment wherein employees have a space to work in the office should they want. WFH does not mean restricting employees to a fixed schedule. On the contrary, it should give them the scope to manage work and family together. 
  • With an entire family staying at home 9whether that be school or work), it might be difficult for individuals to manage their work. Juggling between multiple conference calls, taking care of children and elders and completing household chores might not be an easy task. Employers have to understand the situation and give their employees the necessary freedom to manage their time. Some companies are following this quite well, and they conduct frequent calls with the employees checking in to see what support they can offer. All this helps in keeping people connected and rejuvenated.
  • To reduce the risk of burnout, companies should encourage their employers to have a healthy work-life balance. Mental health programs have gained importance over the past few months, and many companies are holding webinars and offering online assistance and information. 

In times like these it is common for people to feel disconnected from their office network. However, maintaining a steady flow of communication at work (with colleagues, managers, and other stakeholders) will enable staff to feel connected and stay productive and efficient. Effective communication needs to become an essential component of remote working. Thus, all companies should ensure that,

  • Teams should share regular work updates to keep work on track. In these unusual times, collaboration is the key to success, and employees should try to create a collaborative environment.
  • All companies should organize a weekly virtual meeting or virtual bulletin board to keep employees abreast of new developments in the company. A company is likely to be far more productive if all employees come together regularly to discuss progress of work, goals and targets.
  • Apart from work-related communication, employees should also communicate on a personal level. Virtual meet-ups, cooking sessions and frequent video calls are some of the ways that company HRs are adopting to ensure their employees stay bonded and connected.

Since the digital medium is by far the main way in which we operate, companies need to leverage the digital platform in the best possible manner. Various digital platforms are available that ensure seamless business operations. 

  • While email and regular project management tools (MS office tools) help in managing the daily activity, individuals need to have regular team meetings to ensure that everything runs smoothly. Video conferencing tools have become an indispensable part of the work routine today. Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Skype have all seen a significant jump in their usage over the past few months.
  • Companies should ensure that their employees are able to use and manage all the technology available to them and offer any support where necessary. All employees should have laptops/desktops, a good internet connection, a VPN connection (if required), and access to all necessary work resources (digital database, repository, SharePoint). 

WFH is no longer a temporary option or a bonus. It is the new style of working but individuals still require a safe and suitable office environment even when at home to stay productive. Thus, they should take the help of professional companies that help advise and set up a workstation at home.

While all this can provide some help to continue productive work, employees in some business sectors have no choice but to return to their workplace and this situation can become very challenging for companies. Business owners, whether they own MNCs or small businesses, should perform a Covid-19 risk assessment for the company before staff return to the office. A risk assessment discloses the potential dangers of exposure to Covid-19 in the workplace. Companies should take subsequent measures in their workplace as per the risk assessment results. 

  • Before resuming business operations, employers should verify that the office building is fit for occupancy. It should not have problems related to stagnant water systems, pest or rodents, and mould growth. If such is the case, companies should perform proper pest control in the office premises.
  • Employers should ensure that the office building has proper ventilation. The air conditioning system should operate following the WHO guidelines.
  • Companies should come up with hazard control norms to reduce the Covid-19 transmission in their workspaceThey should modify the seating arrangement plans keeping in mind the social distancing norms. 
  • Employers should minimize employee gathering in all areas of the office premises such as meeting rooms, breakout areas, cafeterias, parking lots, locker rooms, entrance, and exit areas. 
  • The office building in-charge should ensure that sanitation, cleaning, and disinfection of the whole office takes place daily (if not daily, then at least three times a week).
  • Employees should operate in staggered shifts to reduce physical gathering. Also, it ensures that there is ample space in the workplace to practice social distancing.
  • The office premises should have temperature scanning devices and sanitizers present at the entrance and exit areas. Placing sanitizers in office corridors or on every floor in the office building is also good practice.
  • Janitors need to clean and disinfect the washrooms thoroughly. Also, waste disposal in the office premises should follow safe hygienic practice.

Educating employees about personal safety and health

Employers are doing their best to ensure that their workplaces are safe, and the chances of Covid-19 transmission are minimal. However, the employees are equally responsible for ensuring their safety and following the social distancing norms.

Employers should go through Covid-19 employee health and safety training. Various reputable companies like the National Safety Council, the World Health Organization are providing this training online. DON’T KNOW IF YOU WANT TO INCLUDE THIS

It helps employers in gaining perspective and understanding the new norms about the workplace. The training addresses the following topics:

a. It provides directions on how to design the post quarantine workplace. A group of medical and health professionals and government agency representatives provides recommendations on the best practices to make the workplace safe.

b. The COVID-19 Return to work awareness training also provides guidelines and resources to ensure the mental health of employees stays in check. Thus, there is an emphasis on stress reduction, an employer’s role in mental health, and overall wellbeing of employees.

c. It provides detailed information about the Guidelines related to face covering, travel advisories and general information for employers

d. Various webinars, podcasts, and resources provide information on general and safety norms that are relevant in tackling the Coronavirus

The training makes both the employees and employers aware of the safety norms and best practices related to Covid-19 and the guidelines safeguard the mental health and wellbeing of employees whilst also boosting employee morale and helping them to stay focused. 

WHO also provides Online training for Covid-19The course is free and accessible on Open WHO.It has detailed information about Coronavirus, its origin, its health-related impacts, along with operational guidelines for workplaces, and health and safety briefings.

The belief is that if the entire community joins hands, together we might all emerge victorious and our health, business and the economy will remain unscathed and we might all become more resilient as a result.  

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