Allowing Workplace Visitors during the COVID PandemicReynaldo Villar | 01.29.2021
When it comes to visiting clients or vendors, how do businesses keep their workers and facilities safe from potential COVID exposure?As a business leader and manager, you have two fundamental challenges when it comes to safeguarding your employees during this coronavirus crisis:
- Do everything you can to prevent the COVID virus from entering your worksite or facility
- Do everything you can to prevent COVID from spreading among your employees if it does manage to enter their workspaces
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What Many Businesses Have Already Been Doing to Protect Their WorkersAs mentioned above, many businesses protected their workplaces and workers by simply requiring their employees to work remotely. This was an easy call for many office-based workers. For the businesses that remained open or began to call their employees back into the office, new protocols were necessary:
- Screenings. To help prevent COVID from entering their workplaces, many businesses began instituting a daily screening process to prevent anyone from entering if they had recently tested positive for COVID, many have been exposed to COVID or have symptoms related to COVID. While many small companies and organizations used simple paper or online forms, larger and enterprise companies used HIPAA-compliant COVID screening apps instead.
- Improved hygiene and sanitation. Businesses increased their cleaning and sanitation regimens to prevent COVID from spreading inside their facility. These steps often included sanitizing supplies for every room or employee. But it often also included encouraging their employees to similarly practice increased hygiene standards.
- Masks. While there had been some confusion about the efficacy of masks, subsequent studies have shown that masks can help limit the spread of COVID. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes, masks are primarily helpful in preventing the emission of virus-laden droplets from individuals who may or may not know that they are infected and infectious. But they also do help protect individuals from inhaling those same virus-laden droplets.
- Social distancing. While there has been some conflicting research on the right amount of social distancing, there is little to no disagreement that social distancing does help in preventing the transmission of the virus. The original World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation of maintaining a three-foot distance is based on research that is over 80 years old. A more recent study during the SARS epidemic of the previous decade showed that the spread of the virus on a single airplane flight was limited to those individuals within six feet of the initially infected traveler. And while a recent MIT and Oxford University study showed that COVID can travel up to 26 feet.
Essential and reopening businesses also face important if not fundamental changes in their supply chains and especially in business-client relationships. Even during the pandemic, companies and organizations urgently need to communicate the message that they are open for business – especially with their existing or prospective clients.Business owners, leaders, and managers are already finding new ways to align the challenges of safeguarding their workplaces and workers with the challenges of addressing the needs of their clients and vendors. As all entrepreneurs know too well, their client’s satisfaction, as well as their relationships with their vendors and suppliers, will go a long way in determining how effectively their businesses can succeed – particularly after we’ve contained this pandemic.
Understanding the Risks of In-Person MeetingsDuring this global pandemic, it’s important to remember that social distancing does not mean withdrawing from employees, clients, or vendors. These clients and vendors may currently be in self-isolation or in quarantine, but it does not impede staying connected and continuing to provide excellent service whenever possible. Sustaining clients during this pandemic means maintaining consistent communication and this can be achieved without interrupting social distancing policies. It could be through the use of text messaging or direct messages on social media, videos, email, or any digital platform recommended for conferencing. All of these tools reduce the need for in-person meetings and other personal contacts as it is not recommended to meet clients or have visitors come into the workplace. The workplace should be reserved for only employees who need to be there on-site. As much as possible, if the business is in operation, any visits to the clients should be discouraged, and vice versa. COVID-19 has a greater risk of spreading if a higher proportion of people who visit the workplace are from a different location. The coronavirus transmits through infected individuals who have mild symptoms, no developed symptoms, or those who have not yet been tested. The risks could be evident if:
- Your employees have close personal interactions with clients, and these clients have close interactions with other clients. Workplaces with a higher number of contacts presumably are at a greater risk.
- Your employees have lengthened physical interactions (beyond fifteen minutes) with clients, and these clients have lengthened physical interactions with other clients. Person-to-person virus transmission is very likely with longer interactions.
Screening Protocols for Visitors and Clients Coming to the OfficeAs with your employees, one of the two basic challenges that business owners, leaders, and managers face with visitors is to prevent COVID-19 from entering their offices, worksites, or facilities. That means screening and isolating visitors just as efficiently and effectively as you screen your own employees – each time that visitor enters your workspace. While different employers have varying screening requirements, most businesses and organizations ask questions to address these three particular categories of COVID exposure threats:
- Confirmed infections. At least one of the screening questions should ask whether the visitor has tested positively for COVID-19 in the past two weeks, which is an average incubation and infection period commonly used.
- Exposure to individuals with COVID infections. The second group of questions involves exposure to individuals with COVID infections. Some exposure is known, such as when someone is exposed to a family member who has tested positive for COVID. Other exposure may be unknown, such as when individuals go out in public. For example, some states have required residents who travel through known COVID hot spots (such as states with high infection rates) to self-isolate for up to two weeks upon returning to their homes.
- COVID symptoms. The final type or group of screening questions examines possible COVID symptoms that the person may have. The CDC maintains a list of known COVID symptoms that most businesses, organizations, and employees typically use for these symptom screenings. Top of the list of COVID symptoms noted by the CDC is fever – which is defined by the CDC as any temperature over 100.3 degrees Fahrenheit.
Social Distancing for VisitorsOnce a visitor is cleared to enter an organization’s facilities, that company or business now needs to address the challenge of continuing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus within its worksites or workplaces. Passing the COVID screening does not mean that the visitor is free and clear of the virus, and it doesn’t completely eliminate the risk of that person bringing the virus into the facility. And even if the visitor is free and clear, companies and organizations also need to limit that visitor’s exposure to possible COVID infection that may already be in the facility. While the COVID pandemic remains a threat, businesses need to take steps to limit the visitor’s exposure to the greatest extent possible. One of the most important methods is social distancing, along with increased access restrictions. Here are visitor social distancing tips that businesses are using today:
- Access restrictions. One of the top ways to limit exposure is to limit access. For example, for visitors attending a visitor in your facility, consider setting aside a conference or meeting room near the entrance just for visitors. Avoid using that conference room for normal intra-office meetings, so that room doesn’t become a transmission exchange source. Similarly, vendors delivering supplies should be restricted to the areas needed to complete their delivery.
- Spaced seating. Limit the capacity in meeting rooms by removing seats from designated meeting rooms. You should then space the seats to achieve the six-foot social distancing recommended by health authorities.
Hygiene & Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Tips for VisitorsAs noted above, social distancing helps but is not enough to prevent the spread of COVID, especially in confined spaces. Much of the hygiene and PPE protocols businesses utilize with visitors normally parallel the same protocols they have with employees, often with more precautions. Here are common hygiene and PPE precautions that businesses are using to safeguard their visitors, as well as their employees and workplaces:
- Many businesses are posting reminders and instructions at their entrance, receiving areas, and meeting rooms, reminding visitors of their safety protocols. This often includes reminders about mask usages, sanitation, and social distancing.
- PPE and sanitizers. Visitors should be asked to sanitize their hands upon entering and issued a face mask if they don’t already have one. This should be done as soon as they enter your facility.
- Cleaning and sanitizing. Businesses should stock their meeting rooms with cleaning and sanitizing equipment so that the room can be cleaned regularly. Beyond the daily cleaning most rooms get, businesses and organizations should sanitize the surfaces of meeting rooms after or before each visit.
Returning to “Normal” with Caution
Until the pandemic is brought under control through a combination of vaccination, social distancing, and greater attention to hygiene, businesses have no choice but to navigate their return to normal as carefully as possible.It is possible to resume many of the events and procedures we had before COVID-19 emerged. But businesses and organizations cannot afford to be reckless. It’s critical that any return to work, let alone to normal, be done with preparation and precautions. The precautions described above may be a hassle, but they do allow companies to begin opening their doors, when possible, to vendors, clients, and other visitors. More importantly, taking these precautions will help our communities and economy finally contain COVID-19 – and start returning to normal for real.
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