The offices, warehouses, and manufacturing plants that America’s workers are starting to return to may look the same as they did months ago, but the feel inside will be largely different.

The coronavirus has changed the workplace environment as we knew it for the foreseeable future. Companies welcoming back employees to their facilities are subject to a duty of care that requires new protocols and rules necessary to protect the health of their workforce. While there is no perfect plan, knowing the priorities and putting extra attention on detailed health measures are paramount for all employers, says Dr. Jonathan Spero (, a physician and expert on pandemic preparedness and employee health.

“As employers begin creating a COVID back-to-work program for their organizations, it is clear that there is no proven roadmap,” Dr. Spero says. “We are in uncharted territory. But it has to be all about health security.

“People are concerned when they get up in the morning that they are going to be exposed to COVID-19. The only way to solve it is to take a lesson out of the global public health playbook and establish proven health security strategies. This involves three foundational elements: the prevention of illness, the detection, and the response once you get the data to identify who’s ill or who has been infected in the past. Some people will get infected in the workplace, so the key is taking all the measures that can help keep the transmission rate way down.”

Dr. Spero offers these tips to employers for developing a return-to-work plan:

  • Reconfigure high-contact areas. Dr. Spero says continued social distancing and wearing masks in the office remain top priorities as the pandemic continues.
  • “Until further notice office space needs to be designed so employees remain at least six feet from each other at all times,” he says. “There is no more mingling in groups, and people have to be spread out.”
  • Daily temperature checks. “These are done before entry in the workplace,” Dr. Spero says. “Use no-contact, infrared thermometers. Taking employees’ temperature is not bullet-proof; people can be asymptomatic and still be infected. But fever is the most common symptom associated with COVID-19, so it makes sense to still check people’s temperatures. If they’re above normal, they’re sent home with a plan to refer the ill employee for follow-up medical evaluation and potentially COVID testing.”
  • Consider PCR testing. As states reopen businesses, some large companies are testing employees for COVID-19 while trying to prevent outbreaks on the job. Medical professionals and employers say this testing, known as PCR (Polymerase chain reaction), can help reduce transmissions and workers’ fears.
  • “For employers, it’s recommended that when doing a screening, you’re testing for those patients that are asymptomatic,” Dr. Spero says. “The idea around PCR testing is, because there’s an asymptomatic pool of employees that may be positive, you want to identify those folks and avoid them infecting others in the workplace.”
  • Have a reporting and follow-up system. Dr. Spero says employees who test positive need to be enrolled in a return-to-work program. This involves quarantine protocols and work clearance guidelines on when the employee can return to work.
  • Ramp up cleaning procedures. “There should be morning and evening routines of disinfecting all surfaces in the work area, including keyboards,” Dr. Spero says. “Frequent hand washing, use of hand sanitizer, and avoiding touching your face all are very important as employees come back to the office.”

“Returning to a workplace does bring risks, and employers have a duty of care to mitigate these risks,” Dr. Spero says. “It’s imperative employers build a plan that reduces the risk of COVID transmission.”