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8 Things to Consider Before Asking Your Employees to Return to the Office

And no, easier coordination in person is NOT a valid reason.
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Now that Metro Manila has been placed under GCQ with "heightened restrictions," many companies are considering requiring their employees to return to the office. But it's not as simple as asking staff to wear masks and maintain physical distancing. The DOH has recently expanded its list of Minimum Public Health Standards for private establishments and offices. 

Before opening up your office, you'll want to make sure your company complies with these requirements. After all, the last thing you want is for your business to be at the center of an outbreak. 

The doctors of Centre Médicale Internationale tackled this topic at the private clinic's recent webinar, "COVID-19 Strategy: Reboot Required." Dr. Aileen Espina delivered a talk titled "Prevention and Management of Surges in Workplaces and Communities." She serves as a consultant on disaster medicine to several international organizations including the WHO and CARE International.

Other speakers included infectious diseases specialist Dr. Benjamin Co and Dr. Michael Tee, who has published several papers on the psychological effects of COVID-19 and conducted a validation study on the use of saliva RT-PCR with UP, University of Illinois, and the Philippine Red Cross. Here are their insights on what you should consider before asking employees to stop working from home.

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Is your reason for asking your employees to physically return to the office valid?

"We have been working with DOLE and the Philippine College of Occupational Medicine regarding this matter," Dr. Espina says. "COVID has really re-engineered the way we do work, the way we do business. So as an employer, you have to ask yourself, 'Why do I want this person to report for work physically? Is my employee able to be productive? Are they able to deliver the required deliverables despite working from home? If the answer is yes, then why are you insisting that they report for work physically?'"

Dr. Tee adds that you can only justify asking an employee to return to the office if the work itself cannot be done at home anymore. "Because if you can do it at home, it is best to allow an employee to do it at home. But if you have sensitive materials that cannot be brought home, by all means, you're justified to bring them back to the office," he says.

You'll need to expand your office space and make sure it's sufficiently ventilated.

"If you will insist on having everyone present in the workplace at the same time, you have to expand your physical space," Dr. Espina explains. "Because you need to allow for enough space, the requirement is around 4 sqm per person, and then you'll look into the crowding index. You'll look into the carbon dioxide emission. Because in the safety seal requirement of the Joint Memorandum Circular, one of the things that you're being asked to comply with is the carbon dioxide concentration in the room. And then you need to measure the air circulation and all of [that]."

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"No less than Secretary Bello has recognized the importance of proper ventilation in the workplace. This is very important because for the longest time hindi po ito nirerecognize. But now there is actually a move na titingnan na po talaga yung air quality in the workplace," she adds.

If you can't open your office windows, you will have to install HEPA filters in your air conditioning. "Engineering of air and ventilation systems is very important now because of the fact na nagbago na nga po ang ating kaalaman tungkol sa COVID. We now know that it is airborne," Dr. Espina says. 

According to this video she shared during the Q&A, you can purchase an NDIR carbon dioxide monitor to measure the emissions in your office. A normal level would be 415 PPM, while with open windows 700 PPM would still be acceptable. Dr. Espina also recommends the Covid-19 Indoor Safety Guideline tool to calculate the limit of safe occupancy following the entry of a single infected person. 

For more information, you can refer to DOLE's Guidelines on Ventilation for Workplaces and Public Transport to Prevent and Control the Spread of COVID-19.

Consider staggered work hours and shortened work weeks.

Dr. Espina stressed that executives will need to review their process flows and assess what work can be carried out remotely and what tasks will really need to be done in the office. Identify who needs to be at the office and how often they need to be there. If you can avoid returning to the old 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday work week, it will also decongest traffic since less people will be commuting to work during the same hours. "We need to think out of the box. We need to come up with a new way of doing things because it's not how it should be anymore," Dr. Espina says.

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You'll need to have a system for detecting and isolating employees who have been infected.

This is another one of the Minimum Public Health Standards included in the DOLE-DOH-DILG-DOT-DTI Joint Memorandum Circular regarding the new Safety Seal Certification Program.

Dr. Tee pointed out that companies cannot just let their employees report to work without a monitoring system in place, because even if the company is compliant and has a good ventilation system, employees can still get the virus while using public transportation.

"So it is a situation [in which] you have to be proactive and able to isolate them and have a system," he says. "If you're a registered business company, then you can always demand from the local government unit to have a coordinating personnel so that your HR can tell them, 'Boss, one of my employees is symptomatic. I will hold him in isolation in this office because we discovered it here, we will not allow him to spread the virus on his way home. So please pick him up here or I will have an ambulance send the patient to your isolation center for testing and then isolate him back again here' because those are things that are not only for your company but for public health purposes. You don't want a positive or suspiciously positive patient to be spreading the virus while commuting."

Dr. Espina adds that companies should create an environment that encourages and enables employees to report their symptoms. Employees need to be assured that they and their families won't go hungry if they report that they have been infected.

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"In one of the companies that I'm doing technical assistance for, one of the administrative policies that really changed the behavior of the employees was when they 'rewarded' people who were reporting symptoms. They were given leave with pay if they voluntarily [went into] quarantine, if they were identified as close contacts within the company," she explains. "And it was not deducted from their leave credits if they [were] placed on quarantine as a result of the contract tracing activities of the workplace. So [creating] an enabling environment that will allow people to comply with the requirements of isolation is a good strategy to modify behavior. It's not just about communicating all of these things, we also need to [create] an environment that would really enable people to comply. I think that's one of the more important things that we need to recognize."

Dr. Espina also recommended linking absenteeism with possible infection. Your HR personnel should check on your employees and ask them why they haven't reported for work. If they're doing so because one of their family members or someone in their community was infected, they may have brought the virus to the office as well. If you know your employee is isolating, then you can respond appropriately by implementing contact tracing and disinfecting the office.

Consider providing a shuttle service for your employees.

Dr. Tee says that shuttle services are an investment, not an expense. After all, you're minimizing the risk that your employees catch the virus on the way to the office.

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In fact, many restaurants and hotels state that they provide a shuttle service for their employees, and this is in spite of the fact that the hospitality industry has been severely impacted by the pandemic. If struggling companies can provide transportation for their staff, then maybe you should as well.

You'll need a designated Safety Officer to ensure all of the abovementioned requirements are met.

It's the Safety Officer's duty to coordinate with the local government unit to refer infected employees to isolation facilities or hospitals, depending on the severity of their symptoms. The Safety Officer will also be in charge of contact tracing, monitoring employees who are quarantined or isolated, and implementing return to work policies in compliance with the minimum public health standards.

Make sure you're using the right tests to screen your employees.

Dr. Tee explains that Rapid Antigen testing only detects COVID-19 in symptomatic patients who are in the early phase of the disease—that means less than 7 days from when they began to show symptoms. "Many of you are maybe captains of industry, owners of your company. I advise you against using antigen testing for your employees who are asymptomatic. Do not use that, it will only waste your money," he says. "I really don't like wasting our resources on this."

If you want to find out if your employees are asymptomatic, you will have to use an RT-PCR test with a saliva specimen. "Saliva is important because it can detect even asymptomatic and mild COVID-19 infection," Dr. Tee says. "[The] use of saliva in RT-PCR test is good. DOH approved that and it is available, cheaper, easier, and non-invasive."

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When it comes to employees who have recovered from COVID-19 and are waiting for approval to return to work, Dr. Tee and Dr. Co agree that requiring them to take an RT-PCR test is actually counterproductive. You can still get a false positive 3 months after the patient is no longer infectious because the RT-PCR test may mistake skeletal remains for a live virus. In the meantime, if your employee has used up their leave credits, you're denying them the opportunity to earn a livelihood. In fact, requiring a negative RT-PCR test from employees is illegal.

"One of the things that I usually get as a complaint from moms and dads are HR people that insist on requiring a negative PCR before some of the people are able to go back to work. I do not know where they get that from. And maybe they need to get a doctor on board but that company can get sued. That's against DOLE practice," Dr. Co says. "And I warn the companies that do this, some of the patients may still remain positive even after the 3rd or 4th swab. And that does not mean that you're going to make the patient stay at home. That's the reason why we go through the process of making sure that the patients are examined by physicians and it is up to the doctor who gives the permit or allows the patient to go back to work. That is more important."

You'll need to have a business continuity plan.

Dr. Espina stresses that you need to have a business continuity plan in place in case despite all your efforts, there is a COVID-19 outbreak at the office. "You need to be able to identify what the triggers [will be] for you to activate your business continuity plan," she says. "In the workplace, it is very important to ensure that your productivity will not suffer because it will damage your brand integrity if you're not able to deliver on your production. So it's very important to do that for corporate public health."

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It's clear that asking your employees to return to work is not a simple undertaking at all. The government requires companies to make sure all the minimum public health protocols are in place and some of these measures will necessitate investing in equipment to make sure your office is a safe place to work. If your employees are able to submit their deliverables from home, it's probably best to continue allowing them to do so.

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