[OPINION] Our biggest asset: Putting employee health first in the pandemic

'We did a rough survey of what companies are currently contemplating to implement once the ECQ is lifted. A handful of creative measures are being proposed.'

The country’s already-extended enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) is tentatively slated to close on May 15, and the hope is that it will be shifted into a more relaxed general community quarantine (GCQ). Of course, this depends on the risk assessment that national and local government leaders will undertake in the coming days.

There is a clamor for reopening the economy – gradually, from May 15, and the loudest push is understandably coming from the business sector. Companies are already making tentative plans to allow the slow return of employees to the workplace, among other “back to normal” routines.

How to restart the economy is a valid question, as there is no single right way to do so. We need to regain the confidence of businesses and consumers alike as well as the losses incurred by the two-month lockdown and the economic crisis ahead.

But we have to be mindful to not jeopardize the health and well-being of our employees. Exposing them to the virus puts their wider families and communities at risk and may eventually lead to more lockdowns. While we know that the road to full economic recovery is long, we cannot afford repeated economic disruption due to waves of viral spread; they will continue to hurt our households and paralyze our economy in the long run. 

Due to the limited guidelines for post-ECQ workplace safety given by government to businesses, individual companies are now taking matters into their own hands in deciding how to strike the balance between getting back to work and putting employee health first. We did a rough survey of what companies are currently contemplating to implement once the ECQ is lifted. A handful of creative measures are being proposed. Here are a few examples:

 

Regularity

Who is doing this ?

Advantages

Disadvantages

Company A – Split teams: Team 1 and 2 alternating

Weekly

Hospitals

Some banks

Corporate offices

Easy to remember schedules

Teams get long restorative breaks

May not uniformly apply to managers & leaders

Company B – Split teams: Team 1 and 2 alternating

Daily:

Team 1: Monday-Wednesday-Friday

Team 2: Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday

Restaurants

Manufacturing/factories

Pharmacies

Some retail companies

Continued work Less likelihood of layoffs

More frequent exposure

Erratic or disruptive schedules

Company C – Work from Home (WFH)

To be continued until one month from lifting of ECQ

Professional services

Some corporate offices

Limiting employee exposure 

Limited internet access

Staff accountability challenging

Company A is splitting into Team 1 and Team 2, alternating on a weekly basis. This arrangement resembles what is done by many hospitals where frontline health workers report to work for a full week followed by a two-week rest – two weeks or 14 days being the estimated incubation period of COVID-19. It allows frontliners to recover from COVID-19 if the symptoms are mild, and to prevent further transmission both within hospital and community settings if they happen to be mere asymptomatic carriers. 

Company B splits teams into two but alternates on a daily basis. The teams may switch assigned days the following week which risks becoming confusing and disruptive, in addition to not allowing for a long enough rest period. Moreover, it could lead to more frequent exposure of workers to COVID-19, either from fellow workers or from outside the office – commuting public, public transport drivers, food vendors, and many others.

Company C prefers to not rush and instead delay the return of its workers one month after ECQ is lifted. It may be a pure office-based company or multinational corporation which needs to abide by international occupational health standards. They usually have tools and infrastructure that has allowed an easier transition to a work-from-home (WFH) arrangement. 

The decision may be informed by specific operational factors distinct to each business. However, at the most basic level, putting employee health first depends on two simple considerations: first, understanding what critical tasks need to be done in the office versus home; and second, what the best setup is, given how much we know about our people and our company culture.

How necessary is it to get our employees to the office? Unless there is critical infrastructure in the office – firewall, vaults, files, or laboratories that cannot be accessed from home – perhaps we can limit the need to commute to work until absolutely essential. Any virus is transmitted not only in the workplace, but also throughout the entire journey from home to office and back. Hence, measures that minimize outside travel for employees will be the most preventative. 

Should employees need to be in these workplaces, strict health standards must be put in place to dramatically reduce infection risk. Employees must be provided with face masks, hand sanitizers, running water, and other hygienic materials. Sitting arrangements in co-working spaces must be redesigned to enable physical distancing. Movement along corridors, elevators, and staircases must be well-thought out to minimize interface among employees in buildings. Some companies have looked at deep cleaning the workplace before they reopen, including retooling air conditioning systems, purging lavatories and drainages, among others. 

For those who will continue to WFH, there may be a need to equip our teams with the right (even minimal) tools so they can properly do their work from home – whether that means wi-fi bandwidth subsidies, access to company intranets, online training modules, etc. See the mix of available resources such as PLDT’s #StayHome campaign which, apart from its underlying message of encouraging people to remain safely at home, also provides complimentary valuable services meant to alleviate the burden felt by their subscribers during these difficult times. 

Everything boils down to how well we know our people and the kind of company culture. These are critical because trust and accountability emanate from them. For example, a law firm may be paying for wi-fi expenses up to a certain peso amount, but paralegals need to log their “online hours” to prove the use. This is a familiar process for law firms, but a fintech start-up operating in a co-working space pre-COVID, now being asked to log work hours from home, seems counterculture.

For companies that have a more mature demographic, keeping them at home is a no-brainer. Meanwhile, this is the time to really mine the benefits of good historical records of employees’ annual health exams, because policies should be extra sensitive to catering to medical conditions, regardless of age. They may be in their 30’s but could equally be susceptible to severe infection if they have histories of ailments. If they can still get the job done remotely, then they should stay at home in the meantime. 

While companies understandably do not have an off-the-shelf manual yet, employees are not guinea pigs. Even without precedent, sound measures can still be implemented with the help of a few no-nonsense pointers that can help achieve both business and public health objectives. The solutions are there, and we must continue innovating, iterating, and learning by doing.

Looking at where China, Korea, and Hong Kong are today may bring inspiration. They are, after all, 6-8 weeks ahead of us and we can learn from what has worked – and what has not. In Hong Kong, the new normal at restaurants may mean fewer tables of diners and staff that alternate work weeks. Office spaces are looking at “things like ventilation, UV light, density screening, video monitoring, and temperature monitoring, cleaning protocols to ensure more space.”

Indeed, companies must have used the ECQ period to review and enhance their systems and must continue to do so even beyond. At the end of the day, these are no-regret investments in preparation for future epidemics and other forms of business disruption. 

Most annual reports say, “People are our biggest asset.” COVID-19 tests the authenticity of that statement; there is no better time than now to put our employee health first. After all, businesses thrive because of their employees. Customers may be right, but employees make things happen. In the age of COVID-19 and thereafter, companies will be judged by consumers and society if they have behaved well during the pandemic response. That goes well beyond donations and product innovation – this is truly about putting people first. – Rappler.com 

Dr. Renzo Guinto (@RenzoGuinto) is the Chief Planetary Doctor of PH Lab and recent Doctor of Public Health graduate of Harvard University. Pat Dwyer (@ecostilleto) is the Founder and Director of The Purpose Business, a consultancy based in Hong Kong who works with businesses in Asia in embedding purpose and sustainability into their strategy and operations.