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5 post-pandemic workplace changes due to safety concerns

The COVID-19 pandemic has already had a profound effect on workplaces. Here are five of those changes and what they mean for HR teams.

The idea of people sitting side by side at the office or shaking hands at the start of a job interview already seems like a distant memory. The post-pandemic workplace is a very different place from what preceded it.

Employee safety and employees' perception of safety has become paramount, and HR teams are surfing a constantly changing situation.

In some cases, workplace changes are obvious, such as the use of masks and shielded workspaces. In other instances, the changes are more subtle, as HR helps employees adapt to new technologies such as touchless time clocks and scheduling tools.

Here are five changes that characterize a post-pandemic workplace.

1. Employee safety expectations drive workspace design

While it's one thing for HR teams to follow reopening guidelines, they must also make sure workers will accept whatever changes they put in place.

Employees expect HR to take precautions for their safety, said Susan Baranowski, corporate director of human resources at Refined Hospitality, a luxury lifestyle management company based in New Hope, Pa.

Some of these precautions may include taking away shared appliances, as well as implementing one-way hallways and closing up conference rooms.

There are also important business reasons to satisfy the workforce's concerns about COVID-19.

"You want employees to feel good about this because that translates into service," Baranowski said. "If they feel like you've taken all of the steps to make sure that they're going to be able do their job safely, that's going to translate to a sense of security and safety for [your customers], as well." 

2.  Scheduling becomes more complex

The risk of contracting the virus increases with the number of people in a space at one time.

Minimizing contact -- whether it's between employees as a group or employees and customers -- involves more than reconfiguring workspaces, said Pete Tiliakos, principal analyst at analyst firm NelsonHall, based in Boston.

A number of new back-to-workplace safety guidelines exist, and some companies are limiting the number of workers who can occupy a facility at one time. For example, Facebook plans to limit its workplace occupancy to 25% once it reopens.

To accomplish this, HR should have managers spread out shifts. This could mean more people will work during what were once considered off-hours. If the practice becomes widespread, spouses may find themselves with conflicting schedules or child-care challenges they didn't have before.

The impact on families could push many employers to provide financial incentives for those assigned to new shifts, Tiliakos said. When assigning an employee an undesirable shift, HR teams are going to have to reward them to take it.

3. Employee monitoring ramps up

Although privacy concerns are growing, employee health data collection initiatives are likely to expand in the post-pandemic workplace.

HR systems and newer tools can passively gather information about employee health, proximity and shift hours and then HR can use that data to create safer schedules and workplace assignments, Tiliakos said.

They can also use that same data for contact tracing if someone becomes ill.

Some tools already use scheduling data to determine who an employee has come into contact with, Tiliakos said. If a worker tests positive for the virus, managers can quickly determine who should be notified so they can undergo their own test or take mandated next steps.

Companies should also act more quickly on health data than they may have in the past, Baranowski said. For example, HR should encourage workers who report a fever to take proper precautions.

"A fever doesn't necessarily mean that someone has been exposed and tested positive [for COVID-19], but we want them to take the proper measures out of an abundance of caution -- not just for their health and well-being, but for putting at ease the minds of all of their coworkers," she said.

To assist in monitoring employees to help support safety, monitoring technology could become popular in the workplace.

For example, UK-based Pathfinder now offers wearable safety devices designed to help workers observe physical-distancing requirements by scanning for nearby colleagues. A similar product, the Halo wristband, by Vancouver-based company Proxxi is designed to vibrate whenever someone wearing another band approaches within six feet.

Monitoring technology can help HR teams know where an employee is and how many people are in the room, said Chad Sowash, a recruiting industry consultant and co-host of Chad & Cheese: HR's Most Dangerous Podcast.

4. Touchless workplaces become the norm

Technology that minimizes the need for workers to have contact with devices as well as each other is critical in a post-pandemic workplace.

In some cases, that technology may help expand remote-work capabilities. In others, it may involve implementing touchless devices for clocking in, signing documents and accessing checklists.

Salesforce and Siemens are currently developing mobile apps to facilitate workplace entry and elevator use. Hewlett Packard Enterprise recently introduced tools that use facial recognition to allow touchless entry and thermal cameras and machine learning to detect fevers.

Where possible, businesses should use existing systems to limit touch as much as possible, Baranowski said.

For example, both hotel guests and staff can enter hotel rooms using their smartphone rather than a key card, and restaurant patrons can access menus with a QR code instead of taking one from a server's hands, she said.

5. HR keeps employees updated

As a good practice, HR teams should continue to send out updates to employees on any developments or changes happening in the workplace post-COVID-19.

Employees want to know what HR is going to do to keep them safe, Baranowski said.

Just as HR teams traditionally tell candidates and employees about benefits packages and total compensation, they should now talk about the precautions they're taking to address pandemic-related issues.

"It's going to be a necessary adaptation," Baranowski said.

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