How offices are coping with staff testing COVID-19 positive

With the ease in COVID-19 restrictions, many government, corporate and private entities have had staff coming back to offices in large numbers and also testing positive which in turn affects the functioning of the office. There is no ministry, agency or company where staff have not tested positive in significant numbers.

The Royal Insurance Corporation of Bhutan Limited (RICBL) is one such example where the system has been overwhelmed by staff sick with COVID-19.

“We really had a terrible time. At times, a division had to be run by one or two persons because a lot of staff got infected. They had to be isolated, and granted a week’s leave in order to prevent them from infecting the rest of the staff. Other times, we even worked at fifty percent capacity,” said the Credit General Manager of RICBL, Thinlay Dorji.

He said about 4-5 of the staff are testing positive everyday. “The COVID-19 has greatly hampered our work. The work of two or three people had to be shouldered by a single person,” said Thinlay.

He said the situation has improved slightly from last week as some staff who tested positive earlier have recovered. But when one recovers, another one or two test positive.

“On top of that, we have breastfeeding mothers who have to be kept at home for the safety of newborn children. Also let’s not forget, we have quite a number staff with chronic and comorbid medical conditions as well as the identified vulnerable group who are granted leave to avoid the risk of them getting infected. This translates to a lot of staff on leave,” said Dorji.

He said work-from-home is facilitated whenever possible, but in scenarios where work is reliant on heavy team cooperation, and many different levels of approvals are needed or when proposals and business activities need all committee members to be present for it to be executed, then working would prove to be difficult even if a single member was missing.

The important meetings are held virtually as of now.  As the COVID-19 protocols are observed in the office, the staff and clients’ body temperatures are measured before entering the office building. Hand sanitizers and hand wash are present all the time, only the symptomatic people are tested for COVID-19. This is practiced in all branches of RICBL all over Bhutan, he said.

Another office that has been affected by COVID-19 and has taken stern measures is the Bhutan Power Corporation (BPC).

“We have temperature sensors at the gate, and people are generally not allowed to visit the main office. Instead, people are consulted at the reception, itself, due to fear of COVID-19 infection,” said the CEO, Sonam Tobjey.

Another extreme measure taken is virtual meeting among the staff themselves who are present in the office. The BPC CEO said that even if no external people are involved, the meetings are conducted virtually with each members sitting in their own rooms in the office. People who test positive are allowed to work from home, provided they inform their supervisors and produce the antigen test result.

Others who are primary contacts, such as a family member testing positive, are also granted leave or asked to work from home. However, for some staff, like linemen who need to be physically present it is simply impossible for them to work from home.

“But for some others, now with internet connectivity, decisions can be given. Discussions can happen online, assignments can be done online. The work from home has been found to be effective,” said the CEO, and he further added, “Although we follow the decorum in the office, there’s no telling what the employees do outside the office. There are social gatherings, family gatherings, sports and activities, etc. So anyone could get infected. Moreover, it’s risky since most of our staff have children. It will be pointless following all these office COVID-19 protocols if they are not following it outside since the office cannot keep track of employees once the office hour is over.”

The BPC CEO said they are following strict measures not only in head office in Thimphu, but all over Bhutan.

“In our office, one person is testing positive for COVID-19 everyday,” said Om Prakash Nirola, the Chief Resource Officer of BNB, and he further said, “We follow the government’s guidelines and instructions on COVID-19 because after the last lockdown, government changed the manner in which the COVID-19 is managed.”

 He said as soon as they received the first positive case, under the new management system, they consulted with the government, and were told that positive cases are to be quarantined for a week. At least 1-2 staff tested positive every week for a couple of weeks, which causes inconvenience in the working environment.

BNB has asked HODs and branch managers to follow the shifting system, or alternative weeks or team wise. “Our concern was to make sure that all our employees do not fall sick/test positive at the same time. Hopefully, the COVID-19 has not really overwhelmed us, and we were able to somehow manage it. So things look pretty under control right now,” he said.  

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