Across the world, business owners are implementing the systems and infrastructure required to safely bring employees back into the office during COVID 19. Here’s part 2 in our two part interview with David Pierre Eugene, the person tasked with navigating this challenge for the Discovery Group.
As lockdown has eased from alert level 5 to level 3, more people have begun to return to their place of work. Employers are guided by the Department of Labour’s regulations that outline the measures to be implemented in all working environments to slow the spread of COVID 19.
Discovery’s headquarters is at 1 Discovery Place, both the address and the name of the building in Sandton, Johannesburg. It accommodates 8 000 employees. David Pierre Eugene has spent a significant amount of time over the past months contemplating the on site changes required to bring employees safely back into this building, and other buildings Discovery uses across the country, as lockdown restrictions ease.
In his role as head of Corporate Real Estate Solutions, he is responsible for all property (headquarters, regional offices and distribution channels), facilities and logistics services for the Discovery Group in South Africa.
Even before South Africa’s first case of COVID 19, Discovery had considered the global experience and taken bold and decisive measures to protect the health of staff. This took the form of cleaning and sanitising all offices, providing alcohol based hand sanitisers throughout the building, displaying posters and signs informing staff of preventive measures, encouraging people to work from home if possible, and more. David oversaw this initial response.
- Missed part 1 of this two part article? Read it here.
Q & A with David Pierre Eugene on bringing people safely back into the workplace continues from part 1
Is Discovery providing personal protective equipment to employees?
All employees are being provided two washable, Discovery branded fabric face masks for regular use. The masks are made of three layers of fabric. The outer layer is made from a woven polyester, water repellent fabric and the inner layer is a polycotton Vilene. The lining includes single jersey knit to allow easy breathability. We’ve prioritised supplying these masks on site employees.
We also have disposable masks at our security checkpoints for employees who have left their mask at home. At the office, we are required to wear a mask at all times. We also inform staff on all they need to know about using their masks.
- Here’s a video about Discovery fabric face masks – you can buy them from Dis-Chem and Takealot for R39, and pay for them using Vitality Active Rewards.
Discovery supplies all employees in roles that involve interacting with the public with sanitiser. We have also given customer facing staff desk shields.
Staff have been advised to:
- Only use the mask after it has been cleaned and ironed.
- Wash hands thoroughly for 20 seconds before putting on the mask
- Cover the mouth and nose completely with the mask
- Once worn, not touch the mask until it is time to remove it and then only by touching the straps
- Not lower the mask to speak, cough or sneeze
- Wash their hands thoroughly for 20 seconds after removing the mask
- Wash masks with warm soapy water and iron when dry. Ironing or steaming a mask is the best means of disinfecting it.
What happens if someone develops symptoms of COVID 19 while they are at work during the day (but were fine when they arrived), and after they’ve interacted with multiple people or workspaces?
An employee’s first step is to inform their manager. All managers know the protocol: send the staff member home and ask that they register the case with the COVID 19 business support team. This team then calls the employee and asks about their symptoms for information that may be required for contact tracing (tracking down people they have been in direct contact with). The employee may be directed to have an online doctor consultation and be guided from there as to whether a COVID 19 test is necessary.
- Read up on free COVID 19 Online Doctor Consultations for all South Africans
- Watch this video to find out how to access a virtual doctor consultation using the Discovery DrConnect mobile app.
If a staff member contracts COVID 19, how does Discovery undertake contact tracing?
Our COVID 19 business support team works with a staff member’s individual line manger and HR. We aim to determine, through discussion, which other staff members (if any) a staff member who has tested positive for COVID 19 had been in close contact with. Guidelines are provided to the staff member and their management team in determining the list of ‘persons under investigation’ or PUIs.
Trained COVID 19 specialists call close contacts and indicate that the contact they have been flagged as having been in contact with a staff member who has contracted COVID 19. Making sure to keep the person calm and informed, the COVID 19 business support team specialist immediately walks the close contact through the protocols defined by the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD), including quarantine and other safety measures. These telephonic engagements are followed up with written communication. Close contacts are monitored on a regular basis until they are well or determined to be able to resume normal activities, including work. During this process, employees receive both emotional and clinical support.
Recently an employee who tested positive for COVID 19 had come into contact with 22 other people. We needed to assess the extent to which those 22 people had interacted with others and ensure that these people were aware that they should follow the NICD protocols. Close contacts (as defined by the NICD) must immediately self quarantine for 14 days while monitoring themselves for symptoms of COVID 19. If they display symptoms, they must inform the COVID 19 business support team, who will arrange for a COVID 19 test to take place.
Once we establish the timing of the employees’ first developing symptoms of COVID 19, who they came into contact with, where they were sitting, and so on, we also deploy a cleaning crew to all areas that the staff member came into contact with.
Are visitors allowed into Discovery’s buildings?
Visitors will only be allowed under alert level 2. They will go through the same screening checks as our employees. We also prefer that our staff only conduct face to face meetings if absolutely necessary.
What restrictions will apply at staff canteens, restaurants, coffee shops and gyms in the buildings?
We translate the guidelines issued by the government at each alert level of lockdown to our own environment both from a clinical and a facilities point of view. Eateries and coffee shops are only operational for takeaways. Gyms and lifestyle services will only open when the country wide regulations allow it.
Which measures minimise risk to those employees who are at high risk of severe illness if they contract COVID 19?
We want to make sure that we continue to protect those employees who are considered high risk or most vulnerable to severe manifestations of COVID 19 infection. High-risk employees are those who have underlying conditions, compromised immune systems or are elderly. We have made provision for employees who are considered high risk to work from home. In a confidential process, Discovery Health identified high risk employees during the initial phases of the lockdown alert level 5, and communicated directly with these employees to empower them to make arrangements to work from home. If they develop symptoms of COVID 19, they have the full support of our Discovery COVID 19 business support team.
Read more on this theme here:
- Why must those who live with chronic illness take particular care in the time of COVID 19?
- COVID 19's impact on people who live with HIV and TB
- What precautions should people with cancer or survivors take?
- Coronavirus 2019 and you: Know your risk
How do you deal with staff who have concerns about travel on public transport?
Under lockdown alert levels 5 and 4 we assisted many employees, who had returned to the workplace and usually use public transport, with access to rental cars. As transport restrictions lifted, more options have become available. And, if preventive measures are adhered to, there is limited risk of exposure to COVID 19 on public transport.
Has Discovery changed its business policies relating to local or international travel?
Yes. For now, both local and international travel is to be minimised. Travel must be approved by the relevant Executive Committee members and employees should only travel if it’s absolutely necessary.
Many employees are feeling anxious about the prospect of returning to the workplace. What can employers do to gauge their feelings and provide support?
The key to allaying anxieties is communicating the measures that are in place to protect staff in the workplace so that staff understand why they are necessary. Staff must also understand their responsibility to follow basic protocols to minimise the spread of COVID 19 in the workplace. Furthermore, we have made sure that staff know that they (and their immediate family) can contact the Discovery Healthy Company team for emotional, financial or legal support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, without charge to the employee.
Staff (and the public at large) also have access to a host of resources to mange their mental health when returning to the workplace. These resources are available on our dedicated Discovery COVID 19 information hub and include various podcasts on our COVID 19 podcast hub, as well as Changing world of work and COVID 19 and your health such as the following:
NICD virologist, Dr Ahmad Haeri Mazanderani’s, podcast: COVID 19 can affect any employee. How should we respond?
We’re returning to a much changed workplace. Here’s what you can expect and how to adapt
Practical tools for staying grounded when you feel fear and anxiety
What could these policies evolve to look like in the future?
We will continue to be guided by national regulations, and advised by our clinical teams. The COVID 19 pandemic has changed our awareness of the ways in which we interact with one another and also of the precautions that we should take to limit the spread of all illnesses broadly – not only of COVID 19. These measures will remain for a long while.
When will we see a full staff compliment in the office? I don’t think we will operate in the same way going forward and I think well move to a hybrid of work from home and office based work.