Going Remote Pt. IV: A Guide for Returning Safely to the Office with Carbon Health

By Caitlin Pintavorn on August 25, 2020

The virtual workforce paradigm has transformed our society.  Since March, we’ve hosted a number of industry leaders through our Going Remote series to learn how they’re thinking about ramping up remote teams, hiring and compensating employees, and keeping workers happy. But for those who plan an eventual return to the office or need to have a physical presence, attention has shifted to how employers can safely bring their workforce back. We recently sat down with Dr. Sujal Mandavia, Chief Medical Officer, and An Le, Senior Vice President of Business Development, at Carbon Health for a discussion on best practices for planning your team’s full or partial return.

Carbon Health is a modern primary and urgent care provider that has been battling COVID-19 on the frontlines in California. Throughout the highs and lows of the pandemic, they’ve kept their practices open, administering over 100,000 COVD-19 tests to local communities. Given the lack of a one-size-fits-all plan and differing regulations across state and local guidelines, they’ve also directly worked with a number of individual businesses to help them reopen safely and be COVID-ready.

Here were some of the key takeaways from our conversation that we hope you can use to guide your team’s thinking around returning to the office:

1. Outline a plan early and personalize your protocols.

If we rewind to the early days of COVID, businesses across the US were forced to abruptly transition to fully remote workforces wherever possible. Back then, we had very little information about the disease and factors of transmission. Understandably, providing guidance to teams on the status and outlook of their work situation during the early days of this crisis was tenuous at best. But now that we have several months of data points, the most important thing for business leadership to do is outline a personalized protocol and develop a plan as early as possible around returning to work.

In creating a comprehensive plan, there are four key areas to consider: physical space, transportation, timing, and personal protective equipment (PPE).  To prepare for a successful return to the workplace, businesses first need to consider how to best adjust their office layouts to comply with CDC safety and social distancing guidelines. It’s also equally important to think about who will be coming back to the office and where they’ll be coming from. Not everyone has been quarantining in the same place or under the same circumstances, so Carbon Health recommends that workplaces start out with a baseline COVID-19 test for everyone in the office to ensure that those coming back to the office are not infected with the virus. It’s also a good idea to think about conducting a phase-in model. This could look like alternating work days (X employees on Mon., Weds., Fri.; Y employees on Tues., Thurs.) or alternating daily start times to mitigate crowded elevator situations.

Despite these measures, it can still be hard to ensure compliance to social distancing measures. That’s why Carbon Health strongly recommends procurement of crucial PPE for your workers so that they can be protected at a baseline level, especially in environments where social distancing is next to impossible. Whether some or all of these suggestions may result in the best plan for you, you should be sure to personalize your back-to-work protocols as much as possible. And given the rapidly changing dynamics around state reopenings and uncertainty resulting from case spikes, if you don’t have to, don’t feel the need to rush to go back to work today.

2. Embrace a culture of transparency and clear lines of communication.

Regardless of when you plan to kick in your back-to-work plans, you should be providing transparent communication to your team every step of the way. Instilling confidence and security among your workforce is integral in keeping employees productive and happy, and becomes especially important during times of unprecedented crises. Even though you may be discussing the details of your plans with senior leadership in your day-to-day work, there’s an information gap among the rest of your team. It’s important to deliver news (even if there’s no news) in a way that resonates. One of the best ways to figure out a strategy that lands well is to constantly involve your team in the decision-making process (e.g. surveys, focus groups, task forces). Different employees will have different levels of risk tolerance and living situations, so this is a  valuable way to gather feedback around how their personal situations and mental health have been faring and to adjust your strategy accordingly.

In a similar vein, it’s integral to establish clear lines of communication around workplace safety policies and procedures. No matter how well thought-out your plan is, unless every employee is 100% on board with it and complies accordingly, you’ll be at risk of a potential outbreak. Communicating why and how to follow office rules will help your team get back to normal sooner. This could look like health information posters around the sanitization stations in the office or like a HIPAA-compliant email notification to close contacts when an employee tests positive.

3. Explore the potential to roll out new tech in your back-to-work plan.

With high likelihood of positive COVID-19 cases constantly going in and out of their clinics, Carbon Health was quick to adopt advanced technology to help them manage their office safety protocols and contact tracing efforts. For instance, they deployed a system to have all employees answer daily questions about potential COVID exposure (e.g. known contact with positive cases, symptom tracking) to gather real-time data about how the team was faring. If they presented as high risk for COVID, Carbon Health would immediately connect them with their network’s virtual clinicians for further guidance. And after these employees test negative for COVID twice, in order to mitigate the chances of a false negative, they were deemed safe to return to work. These measures have been key to their success in identifying hotspots early and keeping their doors open for patients. While most businesses will not have to deal with as extreme of a COVID-susceptible work environment, Carbon Health’s successful integration of adaptable protocols and data-based solutions highlights potential approaches for any company.

In addition to being on the lookout for any new testing technology that obtains FDA approval, Carbon Health has been constantly thinking about ways to sustain a safe environment. Some of the most interesting technological developments their team has been keeping up with are CRISPR-based diagnostics, wearables that can alert high-risk biometric indicators (like the Oura Ring or WHOOP, a Two Sigma Ventures portfolio company), thermal scanners, and smart tech for analyzing hand-washing behavior. For any new technology they consider incorporating into their daily operations, Carbon Health also does a mini clinical trial across their own teams before forming the physical infrastructure necessary to incorporate these products in their workflows.

4. Ensure every employee’s patient health information (PHI) privacy.

When it comes to handling any potential positive cases, it’s important to ensure that your leadership develops protocols and procedures around maintaining the security of any patient health information (PHI) you collect. Carbon Health, for example, asks everyone to sign an authorization paper prior to participating in their symptom tracker program. This allows Carbon Health to ensure that they’re cleared to have minimal levels of PHI data.

It’s also important to think through patient privacy when cases are identified. Granular policies for details like what to do when an employee who has returned to work tests positive in the middle of the work day are critical to helping your HR team avoid having to navigate sensitive clinical decisions. Once you receive notice of a positive case, whether through your own testing or through a self-reported case, there should be secure measures in place to contact trace within the office and ensure appropriate sanitization of any affected physical spaces.

5. Prioritize the mental wellbeing of all employees.

In addition to the abrupt nature of the initial work from home transition, remote employees can also feel lonely due to the isolated nature of their new normal. To drive down these feelings of anxiety, it’s important that your HR and business leadership do whatever they can to instill a sense of comfort and security around coming back to work. Though you can make recommendations around a firm-wide plan, the decision is ultimately a highly personal one for every one of your employees – they’re individuals with their own medical history and family situations. And once your highest-risk employees feel safe coming back to work, you’ll know if you’ve done the transition properly. In the meantime, recognize that many employees are working harder and longer hours due to the remote nature of their days. After all, happy employees are productive employees. Try hosting mediation and yoga webinars or facilitating bi-weekly support group sessions. For more tips on supporting your team’s mental health, check out the takeaways from our last Going Remote installment, “Supporting the Mental Health of Your Team.”

Thanks for tuning into our fourth installment of the series! For those who couldn’t attend the live webinar, a full recording of our conversation can be found below or here.

Note: Carbon Health and WHOOP are Two Sigma Ventures portfolio companies.

The views expressed herein are solely the views of the author(s), are as of the date they were originally posted, and are not necessarily the views of Two Sigma Ventures, LP or any of its affiliates. They are not intended to provide, and should not be relied upon for, investment advice.