We asked companies how they are helping employees to work safely. Here’s what they said

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From testing to returning to work, this is how companies are keeping their employees safe during COVID-19. Image: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Kate Whiting
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  • The World Economic Forum and Arizona State University developed a global survey to find out how companies have responded to COVID-19.
  • More than 1,000 organizations from 29 countries have taken part to build data and share best practices.
  • From the milestones needed to enable a return to work, to the frequency of testing and whether masks are mandatory, here’s what companies said.

COVID-19 is expected to cost the global economy $1 trillion for 2020 alone. And companies that initially allowed employees to work from home during the pandemic have had to adopt strict strategies to reopen offices. Others have yet to return to work, while for many sectors working from home has never been an option.

To share data and best practice examples of how workplaces have changed this year, the World Economic Forum and Arizona State University developed the Workplace Commons community.

It gathered information from more than 1,000 companies across multiple sectors and 29 countries on everything from testing frequency to contact tracing and anticipated challenges. The results have now been published in Facing Uncertainty: The Challenges of COVID-19 in the Workplace.

Here are some more of the main findings, and three examples of organizations that have managed to adapt.

Return to work

At the pandemic’s peak, more than three-quarters of the workforce of companies surveyed were working from home – and as much as 64% still are. The workforce is generally keen to return to the workplace, with only 6% not wanting to return at all.

A local drop in cases and vaccine availability were seen as the biggest milestones for workers to return to their place of work.

remote working COVID-19 workplace safety
The majority of those surveyed are keen to return to the workplace. Image: SAP, Germany

“Based on our existing trust-based culture, working from home was already widespread and commonly taken advantage of by our employees. The reopening strategy and timeline solely relies on the local infectious situation, which is continuously monitored.”

Case study: SAP, Germany

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Testing times

Only 17% of companies are testing, but 60% of those who do make it mandatory. And 44% of those that test are testing for both the virus and antibodies, while 40% are testing for the virus only.

In terms of frequency, almost one in five companies were testing daily (19%), while 37% test weekly, and 44% less frequently. The main reason companies do not test is because it’s too expensive.

COVID-19 testing business workplace employment healthcare
Almost one in five companies were found to be testing daily. Image: Avellino Labs, US

“Our R&D team had already designed our own RT-PCR test for the coronavirus in January to assist our workers in the most affected areas of China and South Korea. Avellino is conducting in-house COVID-19 testing for all employees every week but provides the chance for employees to test semi-weekly. At a minimum, workers must quarantine for two weeks following a positive test for COVID-19; take and receive two consecutive negative tests for COVID-19 after the quarantine period; and obtain clearance for return to work with or without restrictions and/or accommodations.”

Case study: Avellino Labs, US
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Pandemic response

Only a third of companies had any kind of emergency response plan in place pre-COVID. Of those that did, the majority were prepared for fire, natural disasters and the loss of power, but only 39% had epidemic/pandemic plans in place.

The most common response to the pandemic was to cut personnel expenses, which included workforce reductions (permanent 35%, temporary 28%), hiring freezes (permanent 28%, temporary 27%) and reducing hours for hourly workers (29%, 25%).

Around a quarter of companies (26%) reported an increase of 26% or more in monthly operating costs.

Employee safety

COVID-19 masks workplace business employment
74% of companies surveyed provide masks for their employees. Image: Infosys, India

Almost all employers have introduced extra safety procedures to enable employees to return to the office or workplace, with nearly three-quarters requiring employees to wear masks.

More than two-fifths (43%) of employers have brought in contact-tracing, as a way to reduce transmission, with 58% making it mandatory.

Around a third of companies have invested in supplies to make working from home easier.

“We leveraged various technology solutions to ensure safe return of our employees to work. These included AI-powered elevated body temperature screening, social distancing and mask compliance through cameras, internal Contact Tracing apps, a COVID chatbot to answer employee questions on the pandemic and questions on work apprehensions, and hot-desking applications to help employees book a sanitized cubicle in our offices based on country specific rules and regulations.”

Case study: Infosys, India
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