- Preparing for Winter in the Workplace During a Pandemic

Winter is on its way (not that you would know with the temperatures we are currently experiencing!).  It will soon be time for warmer clothing, hot drinks, cozy environments with an open log fire, and lots more time indoors with colleagues, family and friends.

Right, now that we have lured you in gently, here’s the unpleasant reminder that the coldest and darkest season typically brings an increase in infectious illnesses such as cold and flu.  Now, unfortunately, the potential for an increase in cases of the newest coronavirus, Covid-19, joins that list.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that the UK is now seeing a second wave of Covid-19, and current research shows it is more likely to spread in a season when we spend more time indoors, and where cold, dark conditions allow viruses to survive for longer.

Current guidelines state that anyone with a new, continuous cough or high temperature – typical signs of Covid-19 – should self-isolate for at least 10 days.  An added complication is that some common winter bugs present themselves in much the same way, so many people may end up self-isolating with colds, flu or other known viruses, thinking they may have Covid-19. Either way, the UK could be looking at higher absence levels over the coming months.

So, what can organisations do to prepare for winter 2020?

Environmental and Personal Hygiene

Employees should have been well-briefed by now on cough and sneeze etiquette, and how to respond if they feel unwell or show specific symptoms associated with Covid-19, but it wouldn’t hurt to provide a gentle reminder to everyone, especially with the change of seasons and the associated bugs.

The health and safety of employees in the workplace is always paramount, but never more so than when ensuring a COVID secure environment.  By now you, if your premises have reopened to employees, you should have considered the risks involved in using shared facilities, workstations, and in working in close proximity to colleagues.

Where interactions and equipment sharing is unavoidable, it is imperative that employees are provided with hand washing/sanitising facilities, and protective equipment if necessary. These steps should support the overall reduction of ‘bug’ and ‘virus’ transfer in the workplace, such as the common cold.

If possible, employ additional cleaning staff, or increase visits from cleaning crews.  Door handles, buttons, touchscreens, phone handsets, keyboards and bathroom facilities should be a particular focus. 

Look at the Scenarios

Sketch out scenarios for how your organisation will deal with disruption.  Continue to keep employees informed and engaged with your organisation’s response, practices and protocols with regards to Covid-19, as well as any enhancements you plan to put in place for the winter period.

Plan for Staff Shortages

Prepare for the likelihood of employees missing work due to ill-health and/or self-isolating.  Other common bugs that typically make the rounds in winter can emulate the symptoms of Covid-19, so where it may have been fine previously to take medication and keep a respectable distance while getting on with the workday, regulations now require us to self-isolate for at least 10 days, where the symptoms are the same as COVID-19 i.e. high temperature, a new continuous cough, or a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste.

Another scenario to bear in mind that goes beyond the employee is that self-isolation, for 10 days, extends to those that live with (or are in a support bubble with) someone who presents with coronavirus symptoms, or has received a positive result irrespective of symptoms being present, or have been contacted by NHS Test and Trace and instructed to self-isolate. For example, if children are sent home from school to self-isolate due to a classmate being diagnosed with Covid-19.

Plan workloads for the possibility of staff shortages, and look into cross-training employees, so that in the event that someone needs to leave the workplace temporarily, their colleagues can step in.

Plan for Remote Working

If your employees aren’t currently working from home, due to the coronavirus, there is a chance that remote working may need to happen if your employees have to self-isolate, or should your whole organisation need to close temporarily.  Make sure all relevant employees have the appropriate equipment, technology, access to systems and networks and Internet connection to be able to carry out their roles from home or elsewhere.  Also ensure that they have easy channels of communication for reaching colleagues and managers, both to be able to do their work, and to maintain a sense of human connection if working in isolation.

Rethink Public Transport

Regular users of public transport, particularly the London Tube, will know the challenges of staying healthy during the winter period.  If you have employees who regularly travel this way, consider whether they can work remotely more often, to lessen the amount of time they need to spend in environments where viruses typically spread, ultimately protecting them and their colleagues.

Consider Local Lockdowns

Consider whether local lockdowns could have an impact on your business, in terms of supply and demand.  Earlier in the pandemic, many UK businesses found that they could not fulfil orders or conduct business, due to products or supplies being sourced and shipped from Italy, Spain or China.  This form of disruption can also happen within the UK, where suppliers and distributors could be just a few miles down the road.  Wherever possible, set up contingency plans for the likelihood of this.

Support Health & Wellbeing

An element that was absent earlier on in the pandemic, when focus was purely on avoidance of the virus and treatment of the symptoms, is considerations towards general health and wellbeing.  Take steps to support employees in this area.  This could involve introducing initiatives focused on healthy eating, effective exercise regimes, and practices in support of mental health.  It has been reported that many more flu vaccinations will be made available this year.  Choosing to have the flu vaccine or not is a personal choice, but do make information about the flu vaccine and where to obtain it available for employees to be able to make an informed choice.

Preparing for winter in the workplace during a pandemic goes far beyond the simple sanitising of shared surfaces on a regular basis.  It involves much strategising, scenario planning and contingency creation.  2020 has proven to us that being prepared for an emergency, a form of disruption, or a challenging global event, no matter how seemingly unlikely or outlandish, should be at the top of our list of priorities.