• Adrian Tüscher, Partner |

The Swiss government presented its COVID-19 deconfinement plan on 16 April 2020. In the meantime, confinement measures have been progressively eased on 11 May and 6 June. Here, we provide an update and discuss the most important aspects to consider in order to ensure a smooth transition back to work.

Deconfinement stage 3

Since 6 June, further businesses and institutions have reopened, (spontaneous) meetings of over 30 people and events for up to 300 people are permitted. Reopening of any business, service or facility requires that precautionary measures and rules on hygiene and social distancing are observed. At this stage, previously restricted leisure, entertainment and sports activities are now once again permitted as long as attendance lists are taken. Professional schools, universities and other educational facilities are open for classroom teaching.

The third stage in the deconfinement process means that nearly all businesses are picking up speed again. Still, many are wondering how to return to a certain level of normality. The return to the work environment in particular is associated with many questions, not only for the returning employees but also for employers and their HR function.

How should organizations transition back to the office from remote working, while ensuring that security and hygiene measures ordered by the government can be upheld, wellbeing of employees maintained and business and operations continuity safeguarded?

Employers have a duty of care towards their employees and thus are legally obliged to take all necessary and appropriate measures to safeguard their employees’ health and wellbeing. To achieve this, the employer has an extended right to give instructions to employees.

Guiding principles

The health, safety and wellbeing of employees is and remains an employer’s priority. To this effect and in relation with the employer’s duty of care towards employees, employers should establish a return to work plan that takes into consideration measures preventing disease transmission. The plan also needs to comply with applicable government regulations.

Employers have to:

  • ensure a safe working environment
  • instruct employees to comply with security and hygiene measures (e.g. washing hands, disinfecting workspaces and devices, maintaining social distancing, wearing masks if social distancing cannot be observed, etc.)
  • inform/remind employees of such measures repeatedly (e.g. by email)
  • remind employees to stay at home if they suspect exposure or discover symptoms of an infection or belong to a risk group

Do your employees need to return to the office?

Although infection and death rates in Switzerland are decreasing and the curve is going down, the COVID-19 virus has not been eradicated; it is therefore here to stay until immunity of the population is achieved or a vaccine is found.

The return of the workforce to the office or workplace will most likely increase the risk of infection due to the movement and interaction of populations that until now have largely been confined at home.

Currently and despite the gradual easing of the measures by the Federal Council, the Swiss government still recommends, when and if possible, to maintain home office, thereby reducing the amount of social contact.

Employers must be clear on what they want and expect when allowing employees or groups of employees to return to the workplace. In this regard, a risk-benefit analysis of business/operations should be made before considering any return.

Having said this, when considering a return to work plan, employers should address in particular the following questions (non-exhaustive list of issues and merely an example of topics that could be relevant – compliance and enforceability of such measures should be checked, on an individual basis)*:

Return to work plan:

  • Which employees/functions should be returning first to their workplace? 
  • Which employees/functions can maintain home office work? 
  • Is a staggered return to work suitable for my organization? 
  • Over what period of time should the return to work plan be rolled out? 
  • How should we define split teams and their shifts (home office versus workplace)? 
  • When shall all employees be expected to return to their workplace?
  • Who should be consulted in the organization to review and validate the return to work plan?
  • How should the return to work plan be communicated to employees?

Employee health and safety:

  • To what risks are employees exposed when required to return to the office or workplace?
    What means of transportation should commuters use (public transport versus private means)?
  • Should commuting employees be encouraged to avoid using public transport entirely, or at least during peak times? Can employees choose to start later or leave earlier?
  • Can temperature checks be done before employees enter the office or workplace? If so, can such measures be put in place by the employer, and what safeguards need to be put in place in terms of access and storage of related data?
  • Can employees be requested to wear hygiene masks and/or gloves in the office, workplace or in certain defined areas? If so, can the employer provide such equipment?
  • Can employees uphold social distancing in performing their work at the office or workplace
  • Can employees be requested to attend internal and/or external meetings? If yes, what are the restrictions and safeguards to be put in place?
  • How should we respond if an employee, his/her partner, roommate or family member tests positive for COVID-19?
  • How should we respond if an employee is sick and/or presents symptoms consistent with COVID-19?

Office or workplace cleaning and hygiene:

  • What access and controls should be put in place for employees, visitors, clients and others accessing the employer’s premises?
  • Can the mandatory security and hygiene measures ordered by the government be upheld in the office or workplace?
  • What additional equipment and means should be put in place in order to meet the said mandatory security and hygiene measures?
  • Is the office and/or workspace adapted for such measures?
  • What are the costs of such measures?
  • Can such measures be put into place by the employer or should third parties be involved? If third parties are to be involved, which ones?
  • What measures should be taken regarding contractors and cleaning staff accessing the office or workplace, and what and how should be communicated?
  • How often should the office or workplace be cleaned?
  • What should be done if a desk or workstation has been used by an employee who has tested positive for COVID-19?

Home office:

  • Can home office be maintained? If yes, for how long and for which employees?
  • Can employees continue working from home?
  • Does the employee’s role or function within the employer’s organization enable continued home office?
  • Can the employee be required to work partially from home and in the office or at the workplace the rest of the time?
  • Are employees sufficiently well equipped to continue working from home?
  • Does the employee have sufficient IT and internet connectivity support?
  • Does the employer have to pay costs in relation to home office, or refund certain costs to the employee?
  • Does the employee’s personal situation enable him/her to continue working from home?
  • What is the impact of home office on the employee’s wellbeing (e.g. mental health)?

What about employees at especially high risk?

Particular attention and measures must be taken for people at especially high risk to ensure their protection. For these persons, employers must continue to allow working from home and ensure that the necessary organizational and technical measures are in place and maintained. If this category of employees is not able to carry out their usual activities, alternative tasks should be assigned.

If home office is not possible due to the sector in which the employer operates, the workplace and processes must be adapted to comply with the security and hygiene recommendations.

In the event that the employer is unable to meet such requirements or that employees at especially high risk refuse to return to their workplace, and home office is not possible, employers must put the affected individuals on leave and continue paying their salary. In the latter case, the employee must provide a personal declaration to that effect and the employer may request a medical certificate confirming the employee’s condition.

A new tomorrow…

Working in the time of the Coronavirus has been challenging, and it remains so. The most intriguing question though is how will we work in a post-COVID-19 world?

The COVID-19 crisis has presented many challenges on all levels, disrupting the ordinary, but also inspiring quick reactions and innovative ideas in finding new ways of working together. These extraordinary times will surely have left their mark as we reconsider our current work models and redefine new solutions and ways in which to work, be productive, create and interact with one another.

*The information contained herein is of a general nature and is not intended to address the circumstances of any particular individual or entity. Although we endeavor to provide accurate and timely information, there can be no guarantee that such information is accurate as of the date it is received, or that it will continue to be accurate in the future. No one should act on such information without appropriate professional advice after a thorough examination of the particular situation.

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