How industry is returning to work during the covid-19 pandemic

As we continue to emerge from the covid-19 lockdown and try to find the ‘new normal’ in biopharmaceutical operations, BioPhorum members have been navigating how their businesses return to work (RTW). This was a key area in BioPhorum’s recent covid-19 Workforce Protection Survey that was completed by the Senior BioPhorum Connect group, which consists of the leaders and sponsors from the BioPhorum communities. The survey assessed how industry was reacting to covid-19 to identify and share best practices that would help guide its reaction to the crisis.

This article looks at the detail of RTW and asks specific questions on how the Senior BioPhorum Connect group is addressing issues such as the RTW criteria, phased approaches and a possible ‘return to lockdown’. As the survey had a broad scope and RTW was one of the main sections, the following is only a snapshot of the results. To see the longer RTW article, download the full version.

How will social distancing in the workplace be achieved?

Most organizations have implemented a range of physical and temporal controls to ensure social distancing. These include visual markers to segregate/define workflows and taped-off areas that are restricted. As expected, companies place a lot of emphasis on physical distancing, although this varies between countries with distances ranging between 1–2m.

Is the occupancy of work areas/buildings being reduced to a defined percentage versus normal?

Some are starting with a low returning occupancy, e.g. 15–30%, which will be increased in small increments based on the number of covid-19 cases and restrictions being relaxed. However, the upper range will only be around 50–65% maximum occupancy, with some areas remaining at their initial returning levels.

Are special arrangements being made for particular close-working pharmaceutical workplace challenges beyond masks and hand gel?

More than 60% of organizations have made special arrangements for close-working situations. Some of these are physical restrictions to limit close contact (e.g. plexiglass barriers and redesigning the layout of manufacturing setups), while others include the more common face shields and masks, which are primarily used during prolonged close work.

Have plans been established for enhanced/increased cleaning protocols?

Across many businesses, cleaning routines have intensified with an increased frequency and attention on high-traffic areas and touchpoints, with some buildings being sanitized at weekends. Cleaning approaches range from the simple (e.g. hand washing) to the complex (e.g. sanitization of office areas using fogging systems).

Have plans been initiated for eliminating open-plan offices, reducing hot-desking and adding more screens between people?

A small majority of organizations are planning to redesign offices and working spaces for social distancing. Some companies are using covid-19 as an opportunity to review longer-term office configurations of existing buildings or new build/major renovations.

Is a phased approach envisaged for RTW? What are the criteria used to move from one phase to the next?

Most businesses have a stepped approach to RTW with 2–3 defined phases. The phases are structured (e.g. essential manufacturing staff first, then support staff and finally ‘others’) and require approval before transition to the next phase. Transition is often determined by business requirements and predefined measures (e.g. infection rate and PPE availability).

Have ‘return to lockdown’ criteria been determined?

A small majority of companies have defined return to lockdown criteria, although most will defer to local authority and government guidance, particularly if infection rates start to increase. Some will base decisions on the ‘effective reproduction number’ (Rt) data and will monitor the number of new cases per number of staff at sites as RTW progresses.

Where RTW has started or happened, what lessons have been learned?

Industry is at the initial stages of RTW but some early learning points are emerging. RTW is complex to manage. It should be done cautiously with a clear plan that must be flexible to local conditions. Guiding principles (e.g. focusing on staff safety and protecting operations) can help ensure a smooth RTW that has employee buy-in while allowing delivery of supply.

Conclusion

Returning to work is a hugely complicated process requiring the careful management of communications, employee involvement, adherence to local rules and maintaining business operations – all in a fluid situation that can change very quickly.

Though covid-19 numbers are falling in some countries, cases continue to grow in others and a return to lockdown is an ever-present threat everywhere. Industry needs to be very careful about when and how it brings people back to the work environment to avoid an upsurge in infections.

Yet, despite these challenges, industry leaders are making great strides in planning and implementing a phased RTW that will protect their workforce and allow their businesses to operate as effectively as possible. Never have these leadership skills been so needed.

See the first article on the survey results, which considered its overall themes and key messages.

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