Masked employees in an office
Masked employees in an office. Photo via Pixabay

Since the start of the pandemic, kitchen tables have been transformed into workstations and virtual meetings have become the norm. But as the pace of COVID-19 vaccinations continues to roll along, COVID-19 case numbers drop from earlier surge levels and restrictions are lifted, workers and employers are beginning to contemplate a return to the workplace.

For those who have been working from home for nearly two years, a few questions exist:

  • When will I return to my office?
  • What will it look like?
  • Will it be safe?

When Will We Return to Work?

The first question is not so easily answered, as it appears to be a constantly moving target. Some companies are taking a wait-and-see approach before announcing an official return.

However, others have announced a return to in-office work. And some have initiated a hybrid return — some days working remotely, some on-site.

What Will My Workplace Look Like?

The second question offers a more definitive response. The workplace will look different, at least initially, as more people return to the work environment. While precautions for COVID-19 have changed, certain guidelines for workplaces are still in effect.

Aligning with guidelines from the state of California, many workplaces will no longer require face masks indoors, but may strongly recommend them — especially when working close to others. Employees may need to wear masks — made available upon request and at no cost to employees — in employer-provided transportation and during COVID-19 outbreaks, as mandated by local and state regulations at the time of outbreak.

Standard precautions, such as social distancing when possible and frequently washing hands, will also stay in effect. Indoor gatherings, such as eating together or holding meetings at full capacity, are still not recommended. These practices may remain in effect for a while in certain environments.

It is also very likely that some workplaces will continue to require the use of masks even after the pandemic reaches endemic levels of spread. This is especially true in health care and long-term care settings, which pose a higher risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Will it Be Safe to Return to Work?

Both the California Department of Public Health and Cal/OSHA require a safe work environment to decrease the risk of COVID-19 infection among employees at work. Therefore, vaccination, screening and an appropriate period of isolation when employees are sick may be required to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and ensure that contagious people do not come to work.

The best place to start is by getting fully vaccinated, which includes receiving a vaccine booster shot. COVID-19 vaccination helps prevent the spread of COVID-19 and decreases morbidity and mortality in our community. Talk with your doctor whether it is appropriate to receive a second booster dose and, if so, you should receive it.

While virtual interactions have been great in bringing people together and allowing for communication and meetings to continue in the business setting, returning to the workplace will likely be embraced by many, particularly for the social benefits. There is something reassuring and meaningful in dealing with colleagues in person.

Kathy Head, MD, is the associate director of occupational medicine with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group.