As the COVID-19 has been surging worldwide, affecting people, economies and social structures across continents, offices and businesses have turned into ghosts of their former selves. Bustling shared workspaces and big meetings have become a thing of the past. After months of working from home and being active on a limited scale, BRAC has reopened its head office while practicing extreme caution. In Bangladesh, the government issued a directive asking offices and agencies under all ministries to not allow over 25% of the staff to be in attendance in the office at a time. Additionally, pregnant and lactating mothers, and the sick and the elderly were asked to refrain from going to the offices.
Since before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Bangladesh, BRAC was bracing itself to tackle the looming inevitable with apprehension. The pandemic wreaking havoc around the world would reach the country anytime and it was imperative to be prepared for combat. The first case of COVID-19 in Bangladesh was detected on 8 March 2020, and BRAC announced the shutdown of its head office on 17 March 2020, even before the government announced a countrywide total lockdown a few days later.
But shutting down the head office didn’t mean shutting down its operations. Teams of dedicated field staff continued raising COVID-related awareness and their preventive measures in rural and hard-to-reach communities and urban slums while practicing extreme caution. In the following months, BRAC kept a close watch on the mental and physical wellbeing of its staff in isolation. In addition to establishing virus testing facilities exclusive to BRAC staff, it also provided them with free access to telemedicine and psychological telecounseling services equipped with teams of medical professionals.
Since the beginning of April, BRAC’s administration had been preparing for a safe reopening through a cohesive planning process. Although the head office was closed, the team discussed situation reports every day. They also analysed learnings from the developed countries’ COVID-19 battles and how that could be incorporated in our context. Experts and international organisations were consulted, and open discussions were regular amongst the teams. This helped to assess the probable challenges of reopening the workplace in coming days. In addition to identifying challenges ahead of time, the team analysed how the developed nations were tackling them, and documented customised solutions that could be implemented in our context.
But every calculated decision towards reaching the solutions were taken only after surveying the staff body’s opinions and cross-functional committees. Additionally, before implementing every single decision, its adaptability was tested and the respective stakeholders trained on the subject matter. Ahmed Najmul Hussain, Director of BRAC Administration, informed that every single decision has been in compliance with government regulations. Even after implementation, the decisions were analysed multiple times to keep watch on their efficiency through monitoring tools and online surveys. Every step of the work plan were designed after monitoring the latest situations, and learnings from each decision were implemented in the next phases of decision making.
After months of operating through remote working, BRAC finally opened its head office on a limited scale on 5 July 2020. By that time, workplaces around the world had changed forever.
Resuming the head office came with a huge concern for hygiene and social distancing. As per BRAC’s Head of Security, Mesbah-un-Nabi, the organisation’s most precious resource is its people, and ensuring their safety and wellbeing is its number one priority. In order to put hygiene and safety at the heart of office resumption, BRAC took the following crucial steps:
In order to ensure social distancing at the workplace, BRAC is allowing no more than 25% of its workforce to be at the office at any given time. Additionally, employees with chronic illness, those who are pregnant and lactating mothers, or are above the age of 50, have been requested to continue remote working. The rest of the staff were personally contacted by their line managers and asked if they were open to returning to the office, and their rosters were assigned accordingly.
Before reopening, BRAC trained its drivers on safety guidelines and equipped all transports with sanitisers and disinfectants. All office vehicles are disinfected before and after every trip, and passengers have been strictly instructed to follow safety protocols. Lesser numbers of passengers are accommodated in each vehicle to facilitate social distancing, and the staff are picked up and dropped off in the office premises at varying allocated times to avoid rush hours.
The entrance to the head office has makeshift pavements drenched in disinfectants, allowing the staff to walk on them and sanitise their shoes before entering the building. While doing that, security personnels check the body temperature of every employee with thermal scanners before allowing them inside.
When the staff members finally get to reach the elevators in the lobby area after following those protocols, no more than four people can be inside an elevator simultaneously. It is tricky to maintain social distancing in tight, enclosed spaces like elevators, hence the ones in BRAC have been marked into mini-zones, instructing the staff to stand inside the boxes while facing towards the elevator walls and away from each other.
All staff in the head office have been provided with washable and reusable masks, and strictly instructed to wear them at all times in the office. Disinfectants and sanitisers are provided in every floor, kitchen areas, lobbies and washrooms. Video content with safety instructions were produced by the in-house team, and are constantly played on TV screens and kiosks. Additionally, hygiene and safety instructions are announced hourly on every floor through the central audio system.
At the end of the day, for BRAC, it all comes down to serving the disadvantaged and the marginalised while keeping its own workforce safe. During the months of working from home, not being in the office did not hamper the productivity and overall performance of the organisation. It only shows the level of dedication and commitment that the BRAC staff have for their work. It also sets an example of how attainable it is to achieve organisational goals all the while taking care of its people.
Miftahul Jannat Chowdhury is a Deputy Manager of Content and Campaign, and Ramim Hasan is a Manager of Media Strategy and Partnership at BRAC Communication.