Since the start of the pandemic, kitchen tables have been transformed into workstations and virtual meetings have become the norm. But as the pace and distribution of COVID-19 vaccinations continues to roll along, workers and employers are beginning to contemplate a return to the workplace. For those who have been working from home for more than a year now, a couple questions exist: When will they be returning to their usual place of employment and what might it look like?
The first question is not so easily answered as it appears to be a constantly moving target. The second question offers a more definitive response. “The workplace will look different, at least initially, as people return to this environment,” says Dr. Kathy Head, associate director of occupational medicine with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “Precautions for COVID-19 remain unchanged. Although the California Department of Public Health has moved us into the orange tier, certain guidelines for reopening workplaces are still in effect.”
This includes ongoing wearing of masks, social distancing and frequently washing hands. In California, Cal/OSHA (Occupational Health and Safety Association) also has ongoing guidelines for employers, which include to continue with masking and social distancing. Additionally, social gatherings, such as eating together indoors or holding in-person meetings, are still not recommended.
Dr. Head expects these practices may remain in effect for a while in certain environments.
“Specifically, based on current governmental guidelines with respect to ongoing concerns as it relates to COVID-19, social distancing will likely be ongoing for quite some time to protect the workplace environment,” she says. “It is also very likely that some workplaces, which may pose a higher risk of COVID-19 transmission, will require the use of masks even after the pandemic is over. Whether masks will remain at all workplaces is yet to be determined.”
Both the California Department of Public Health and Cal/OSHA require a safe work environment to decrease the risk of COVID-19 infection among employees at work.
“Therefore, some type of screening is necessary to ensure that sick people do not come to work,” says Dr. Head. She adds that the screening can be a self-screening, or a self-fever check at home or at the workplace prior to entrance. “The bottom line is that some type of screening needs to take place to ensure safety at the workplace.”
Dr. Head says the best place to start is by getting vaccinated. “The COVID-19 vaccination helps prevent the spread of COVID-19 and decreases morbidity and mortality in our community.”
When the return to the workplace finally does materialize, Dr. Head believes it will be embraced by many, particularly for the social benefits. “Virtual interactions have been great in bringing many people together and allowing for mass communication and action in a way like never before seen in the business setting,” says Dr. Head. “And I think some of this is definitely here to stay. However, I believe people will greatly enjoy the return of face-to-face interactions in the workplace. There is something reassuring and meaningful in dealing with colleagues in person.”