While the number of COVID-19 infections is on the rise globally, some countries have started to relax lockdown measures and reopen their economies. As a result, many employers have welcomed back employees into physical workplaces. Unfortunately, the workplace is often the source of new outbreaks.

In Italy, for example, a courier express company experienced a surge in infections among employees, with over 40 of them testing positive so far. The company is now working with local health professionals to contain the outbreak. In Germany, a meat factory experienced the country’s biggest single outbreak since the beginning of the pandemic. More than 2,000 people contracted the virus in the area where the meat processing factory operates, with many of the infections linked directly with the factory itself. And earlier this month, Beijing saw the number of new infections rising and decided to impose new lockdown measures. A wholesale market was identified as the place where the outbreak started.

The risk that the workplace becomes a source of a new outbreak is real. As countries have reopened, we’ve advised employers to think carefully about the measures, protocols, and procedures to put in place to create adequate health and safety conditions. We’ve also helped clients identify the most critical risks to mitigate as their employees return to work. While most employers are taking appropriate measures to create a safe workplace — many are even deploying contact tracing solutions in the workplace or providing medical screening of both employees and customers before entering — there is still not nearly enough attention on how to ensure safer conditions for employees during their journey to and from work. There are several ways to mitigate this risk:

  • Enable work-from-home and remote policies. Our research shows that more than 50% of employers worldwide have asked employees to work from home or remotely more than usual during the pandemic. Many companies we talked to also revealed they have long-term plans to introduce more flexible work policies for employees, allowing between 20% and 50% of them to work remotely on a normal basis. Many jurisdictions also protect an employee’s right to refuse unsafe work; for example, Germany has introduced a “right to work from home.” But working from home is not a possibility for everyone. Our data shows this is true for just one in three employees in Singapore and the US. Across Europe, those who cannot work from home or remotely is significantly higher, reaching 52% in France. We know for a fact that commuting to and from work increases the risk of infection: In one study in San Francisco, 90% of individuals who tested positive (2.1% of the 4,160 people tested) couldn’t work from home during the shelter-in-place order, and most lived in households of three to five people or more.
  • Support travel during off hours and promote alternatives to public transport. In the UK, the company responsible for local transport in London and its suburbs provides guidance for safer journeys, which largely focuses on avoiding busy times or public transport altogether where possible. The Italian government issues vouchers to citizens who want to buy a bicycle. But, employers must play their part to mitigate this risk. Pandemic planning protocols do not generally have a lot to offer. From our interviews, we learned that experiences go from complete lack of planning to employees deciding to pay for their own taxis to a few company schemes for paid private cars or accommodations. Employers can do more. In the UK, Cyclescheme, a 20-year-old cycle-to-work provider, has created a COVID-19 hub to help employers and employees get to work on a bicycle.
  • Appoint a “mobility manager.” In Italy, organizations that have more than 100 employees must now hire a “mobility manager.” This role was originally created in 1998 to help large organizations in crowded cities figure out ways to assess and reduce the environmental impact of their workforce going into work. The mobility manager was originally responsible for creating a yearly map of the employees’ commutes to and from work with the intent of suggesting and encouraging “greener options.” But a mobility manager can help also mitigate COVID-19-related risks to commuters. If regularly updated and made a companion to your pandemic management protocol, the map can provide rich information for assessing health- and safety-related risks of employees commuting to work and for choosing mitigation strategies that suit the specific needs of your organization.

For more information and guidance about pandemic management, visit our hub or schedule an inquiry with us.