child doing schoolwork on video chat
From covering the costs of home office equipment to expanding mental and emotional health services, there are many ways employers can support employees as they return to work. — Getty Images Maria Symchych-Navrotska

As many businesses across the U.S. fully or partially reopen while the COVID-19 pandemic continues, they face the extraordinary challenge of keeping workers safe. While following state and local health guidelines is an important step toward reopening, employers may also want to think about additional ways to support employees in this uniquely difficult environment.

Here are five ways businesses can support employees returning to offices, shops, and worksites around the country as coronavirus fears persist.

Child care assistance

With many child care centers and schools closed, parents that are returning to work may have hard choices to make about how to ensure their children are watched. Employers can take this opportunity to offer some help in the form of in-home or virtual child care.

When it comes to in-home care, some people may not feel comfortable in the environment to have an outsider in their home. Parents who are working partly at home may instead appreciate the option of virtual care, where babysitters spend time over video chat with children in order to provide a distraction-free environment for parents.

Additionally, some employers may want to work with parents on flexible scheduling if they can’t offer child care as a benefit. Arrangements can include shifting hours so parents come to the office early or late so they have more time to spend with their children.

Enhanced sanitation and build-out for social distancing

One of the most important ways to support employees during reopening is to follow pandemic best practices regarding sanitation and social distancing. Employers should think about how to utilize spaces differently than before, with at least six feet of space between employees and, if possible, installing physical barriers to help prevent the transmission of airborne germs.

“I think office space is going to change, [and] we will go back to putting shields between people,” former Yahoo and Autodesk CEO Carol Bartz told MarketWatch. “We have to take the fear away from people.”

Other ways businesses can improve cleanliness include:

  • Having workspaces deep cleaned each evening.
  • Placing hand sanitizer stations throughout the office.
  • Offering free masks to workers for use in communal spaces.
  • Providing free disinfectant wipes to employees.

One way for employers to support this shift is to pay for furniture or equipment that will help workers create a permanent home office.

Home office allowances

With offices reopening across the country, many employees will soon be heading back. However, for offices with new capacity constraints and the inability to offer desk space to all employees, some workers will continue spending part of their time working hours at home.

One way for employers to support this shift is to pay for furniture or equipment that will help workers create a permanent home office. Workers can use the money to buy an ergonomic chair, a standing desk or technology like computers and webcams. For example, major companies including Google, Shopify and Pure Storage are providing allowances so workers can invest in work-from-home equipment.

Mental and emotional support

The coronavirus crisis has taken a toll on the mental health of workers, especially for those on the front lines. However, employees of all kinds can show signs of anxiety — whether they have concerns about contracting the virus, prolonged social isolation or family members or friends who are sick. To help counter this, employers can consider providing free mental health and wellness services.

“Employers can support employees struggling with stress and anxiety by subsidizing telehealth visits with mental health professionals or web-based meditation classes,” Christine Muldoon, vice president of strategy at WebMD Health Services, wrote in Business Insider. “The World Health Organization estimates that for every dollar U.S. employers invest in treating common mental health issues, they earn $4 back in increased employee health and productivity.”

Noodles & Company, a restaurant chain, recently added mental health benefits to help employees during the COVID-19 crisis. The company said all of its team members and their families can contact an emotional support line to speak to a mental health specialist at no cost, even if they are not enrolled in Noodles’ health plan. Specialists are available 24 hours a day.

Staggered shifts

One additional way to support employees returning to work is to introduce staggered shifts, which ensure fewer people are at the office or worksite at a time. Staggered shifts can include only having a certain number of people come in each day or have some workers coming in early and some coming in late.

For example, carmaking factories in Alabama have all adopted new COVID-19-focused safety measures including that include staggered shifts. Auto companies including Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz all have factories in Alabama and are using modified schedules to keep fewer workers on the floor and in shared spaces like cafeterias.

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