Back to office? Legal considerations for a covid-free workplace
Several employers, especially in the IT/ITES sector have had a positive work from home (WFH) experience. However, as the second wave and related lockdown ends in several parts of the country, employers would be keen to require their employees to return to office. Apple has recently announced that its staff will be required to work at least three-days a week at their desks. Similarly, Amazon is expecting its employees in the U.S., U.K. and other countries to resume working on site, for at least three days a week.
HR managers have already started to plan return to offices. For an initial phase, employers are likely to prefer employees who are vaccinated, as they have lower risk of being infected with COVID-19 virus. With the vaccination drive being in an overtime mode in India and thanks to the introduction of Liberalised Pricing and Accelerated National COVID-19 Vaccination Strategy of the government, a majority of the employees are likely to be vaccinated in the next few months. India has administered more than 8 million COVID-19 vaccine doses on June 21, 2021, which is the highest single-day number of jabs in the world.
While offices are bound to reopen in due course, employers have an obligation of duty of care towards their employees to provide for a safe and healthy workplace. Even with one case of COVID-19 infected employee, the entire workplace and their families can be at risk.
We are listing below certain legal considerations for HR managers in order to build a Covid-free workplace:
- Track, familiarise and comply with the government stipulated guidelines and orders for office re-opening. Central and state governments have issued several guidelines on a periodic basis and the updated guidance can be put up on the office entrance and notice board for greater awareness and compliance.
- Implement a policy on prevention and management of COVID-19 positive cases in the workplaces in accordance with the standard operating procedures prescribed by Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW). The policy should include cleaning and disinfection measures, social-distancing in office premises and cafeteria, measures on organising an office meeting, infection reporting and response plan, management of close contacts of the person showing COVID-19 symptoms and precautions while returning back home, etc.
- Effectively and clearly communicate to employees regarding the employer’s protocols around COVID-19 preventive measures, testing and vaccination, and encourage the employees to provide their full cooperation in complying with them to help maintain a Covid-free workplace. Organize awareness and sensitization sessions regularly on the precautions to be taken while in office and during transit.
- Re-open the offices in a phase-wise manner such that all employees are not together in office at the same time. For example, allow employees to work in shifts and under staggered hours scheme. Employers can categorize the employees based on their role or duties and allow flexibility in choosing the shift-timings including for breaks and rest intervals. Shift working may help avoid the rush hour traffic, especially if the employees use public transport.
- Perform regular disinfection and sanitisation of the entire office, at the entrance, common facilities and commonly touched surfaces at the workplace for example door handles etc. The frequently touched surfaces may be disinfected using a solution or spray containing 1% sodium hypochlorite cleaning product referred to in the standard operating procedures for offices.
- Depending on the type of work and level of employees, some employees may be asked to continue to work remotely and visit office occasionally, for example on a weekly basis or on alternate days. This arrangement is already being considered by several employers as part of their hybrid work policy.
- For non-employees like contractors, customers, vendors, and other visitors who may need to visit the workplace, put in place an attestation form which contains a checklist to be followed before entering office premises, along with an acknowledgement and waiver form.
- Provide for temperature checks & screening and hand wash or sanitizer at all entry points and at canteen. Make workplace related adjustments of the seating arrangements at office desks and cafeterias to ensure a distance of at least 6 feet between employees.
- Appoint a vigilance officer at each office who is responsible to oversee and ensure that all the requirements under the policy as well as government guidelines to avoid the spread of COVID-19 are being followed. The vigilance officer can also help implement some of best practices which will evolve over time.
- Tie-up with hospitals and medical centers to conduct regular / periodic COVID-19 testing for the employees and their family members. Several employers have already encouraged and organised vaccination drives for the employees and their dependents in accordance with the COVID-19 workplace vaccination guidelines prescribed by the MoHFW in April 2021, and subsequent clarifications. They are now focusing on helping coordinate the second dose of the vaccine.
- Encourage employees to self-monitor their health and report to the HR / vigilance officer immediately whenever they feel sick or have any symptoms of COVID-19, so that the management can take immediate measures to handle the situation.
Many white-collared workers are expected to return to office in September-October 2021, unless there is a third wave. While some employees may resist, there is definitely significant value of working in office. Unlike being pushed instantly to work from home in March 2020, returning to office is likely to be gradual and take some time to settle.
Employers will need to implement preventive steps to promote return to office and provide confidence to employees. While best practices will continue to evolve over time, it is important that the employees understand that it is a joint action plan - both employers and employees would need to fully cooperate with each other to truly make a Covid-free workplace.