COVID-19: The Role of HR in Creating A Safe Workplace for Those Still in the Office

by Julius Rhodes on April 09, 2020

As the world addresses the widespread impact of COVID-19 from a physical and mental perspective, many things remain uncertain. However, less uncertain is the fact that public sector employees continue to be responsible for providing a safe work environment as this dire situation continues to unfold. Whether some of your staff are now telecommuting or will be soon, inevitably there will be public sector employees who cannot perform their critical functions remotely. Doing everything we can to make these employees feel supported, informed, and safe is a top priority.

Tips for Maintaining a Safe Workplace

There are a few things that we know must be done to help ensure a safe workplace, such as:

  • Encouraging social distancing, which can mean anything from eliminating face-to-face meetings to enforcing greater spacing among tables and chairs in common areas
  • Providing hand sanitizer throughout the office and enhanced hand washing tools to help address any potential spread of COVID-19
  • Mandating that employees stay away from the workplace and self-quarantine for 14 days after leaving areas deemed to be at-risk
  • Ensuring employees who contract COVID-19 stay away from the workplace and remain in self-isolation

Beyond these agreed upon measures, public sector agencies must take a pragmatic and precautionary approach, by staying abreast of current guidelines issued by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and monitor advice issued by local, state, and other governmental entities to promote the health and safety of its employees, as well as those who benefit from their services. The following are some tangible steps we can take to make members of our team feel supported during these difficult times.

  1. Addressing Employee Workplace Concerns

    COVID-19 is a crisis the likes of which none of us have ever seen. As a result, public sector organizations may face additional workforce pressures such as increased absences from work. In addition, due to the sheer gravity of this issue, mental fatigue and burnout are also highly possible as the work we perform isn’t always typically limited to a 9-5 schedule.

    As members of the human resources community, we need to ensure we are balancing ongoing service delivery with taking care of the individuals who perform those services.

  2. Understand How Team Members View Your Role: As members of the human resources community, people will naturally expect us to be subject matter experts on the issue of COVID-19. This requires us to be on top of this matter by reading up on the issue and availing ourselves of accessible resources that will provide proper education on the subject. It also requires that we develop and deliver consistent messaging, a task that is not easy, but is essential.

  3. Open the Floor for Questions: Create opportunities for employees to talk and share their thoughts in either an open or a private forum. Communicate and publish your plan to support others and make it a point to be more visible and accessible during this period of extraordinary disruption.

  4. Provide Opportunities for Team Members to Hear The Facts: Encourage team members to ask questions about what might be expected of them from a work performance standpoint and a mental standpoint. It is important that the members of our teams be provided with factual, up-to-date information and avoid idle chatter or gossip. Continue to promote available resources to your team members through your employee assistance program (EAP) and consider hosting weekly town hall meetings with HR and leadership.

  5. Alleviate the Panic: While COVID-19 is unprecedented, we cannot allow our people to exist in a state of panic, which can cause productivity obstacles. Encourage team members to do what they can to address their work and colleagues in a calm and rationale way.

  6. Be Aware of Your Own Mental Health: Stay alert to the signs that you might be suffering from “compassion fatigue,” wherein our ability to empathize with others may be compromised due to exhaustion. If you need to take stock of your own mental health and workload during this stressful time, make sure you do so. Only then can you provide the best support possible to the larger team.

  7. Provide Virtual Work Opportunities: There is a distinct possibility that COVID-19 exposure will happen in our workplaces. Many communities and states have already implemented “stay-at-home” measures for non-essential employees, but if your organization hasn’t yet, prepare for the possibility of allowing certain individuals to work from home and consider making concessions for those in high-risk groups.

  8. Share Resources to Help Employees and Their Loved Ones: Provide links to trusted sources for content that recommend best practices for preventing the spread of COVID-19, such as tips for safe grocery store shopping, how to handle take-out food and delivery, local testing facilities and appointment booking information, and other useful information.


While COVID-19 is unlike anything we have faced, the precautions that we should all aspire to achieve are very similar to what we should be doing during any viral episode such as influenza, or even a natural disaster. As we approach the obstacles ahead of us, we need to be aware that there are no magic bullets and that, like many things, it will take time and intentionally focused efforts to find the light at the end of this tunnel.

Julius Rhodes

Formerly the Director of HR for Cook County in Illinois and an officer of the greater Chicago Chapter of IPMA, Julius E. Rhodes has spoken at past IPMA-HR conferences and will be keynoting the upcoming IPMA Southern Region Conference in Charleston, S.C. He is also the Founder and Principal of the mpr group, a broad-based, full-service Human Resources and Management Professional Services Firm, which he has operated continuously for 25 years. He can be reached at jrhodes@mprgroup.info or 773-548-8037. You can follow him on Twitter @jerhodes42.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of NEOGOV.