February 23, 2024

Inside GM’s Return to Workplace Guide

Stephen Massey
Director, Health Action Alliance

We sat down with GM’s Corporate Medical Director to learn how the company is continuing to improve workplace health and prepare for the “new normal.”

Deciding to bring employees back to the workplace does not mark the end of COVID-19 precautions. In many ways, it’s just the beginning, as employers implement and continually update protocols to keep their employees healthy and confident in the safety of their work environment. Few companies know this better than General Motors.

GM’s front-line employees have worked at the company’s U.S. manufacturing facilities throughout most of the pandemic, operating under a Return to Workplace Guide that has seen many rounds of revisions as GM has kept pace with evolving public health recommendations. The Employee Guide is still in use today and shaping a broader return to work by GM’s office staff. 

We spoke with GM’s Corporate Medical Director, Dr. Jeffery Hess, who shared insights on:

  • Monitoring CDC COVID-19 Community Levels along with in-house metrics;
  • How GM monitors employees for symptoms;
  • Potential permanent changes to reduce the spread of disease at the workplace;
  • The importance of mental health

The latest version of GM’s
Return to Workplace Guide describes two sets of risk factors for raising or lowering your health and safety protocols—CDC COVID-19 Community Levels and in-house metrics. How do you assess those two factors together? 

As we assess pandemic conditions and protection measures across all of our U.S. sites, key factors include the CDC’s COVID risk levels by county and data we collect at each GM site, including positive test results and COVID-related absenteeism. Our on-site COVID-related metrics may drive more robust safety protocol requirements than what the CDC recommends for particular counties.  

What is GM’s testing system?

We’re testing employees for COVID-19 if they arrive at the workplace with symptoms, regardless of vaccination status. In addition, we offer COVID-19 testing for employees in preparation for international business travel. 

How do you determine if an employee is showing up with symptoms?

To remind employees to monitor for symptoms, we have a self-assessment questionnaire posted at the front door. We didn’t find temperature scanning to be as effective as the questionnaire at reminding people not to come to work if you’re feeling sick. If, later in the day, you are sick, there could be repercussions because you’re not following the protocol.

How and when did you determine it was safe for office employees to return to work?

When the CDC, OSHA and state governments lifted rules requiring office-based employees to work remotely in the June-July 2021 timeframe, we provided our employees the opportunity to begin on-site work. Employees could speak with their managers to come to an agreement on where you, as an employee, could do your best work and support the company’s goals, whether that’s at home, in a hybrid approach, or in the workplace every day. We were confident (and still are) that our COVID-19 safety protocols were preventing the spread of disease at our facilities and protecting employees. 

Managing stress and anxiety is near the top of your guide. What recommendations do you have for companies responding to mental health challenges?

Mental health is key for a lot of employers and a missed opportunity. Most employers have an EAP with a phone number that folks can call—advertise it so people can use it. When managers want to know, ‘What can I do to help?’, the EAP can assist with that. If the whole workforce is facing a challenge, you could bring a counselor on-site. The key, though, is making sure employers treat employees like anybody else. If you have a friend who needed help, you would talk to them. It’s the same with your employees. You can at least listen to them and learn what their concerns are. And if an employee is beyond what a simple conversation can help with, that’s when you might refer them to the EAP.

GM’s guide also includes a section on fans and ventilation. What are the most important principles here?

The biggest principles are air exchanges, getting outside air. The virus tends to be small particulates that get into the air and float for a period of time. So cross-ventilation is good, as is an HVAC system that is pulling the air through multiple filters so the virus is not as potent as earlier. We talk about fans in our plants because we have large fans that move the air above your head. We have to be careful with fans on the ground. The problem is if it’s blowing from one person to another person, you might be carrying the virus across that path. But if it’s blowing on you and not somebody else behind you, that’s acceptable.

How important are measures to minimize touchpoints and keep surfaces sanitized?

They’re still useful to a certain extent, but you have to look at the relative risk. The simplest way to decrease that exposure is by washing your hands. Encourage people to wash their hands and give them plenty of opportunities to do it.

GM has a cross-functional team (with representatives from HR, medical, workplace safety, legal, communications and other departments) making company health protocol decisions. Will that team remain in place if and when we move out of an emergency-response position?

When COVID-19 becomes endemic, this cross-functional team will likely disband. Before doing so, we will collect and record the team’s best practices and lessons learned over the course of the pandemic for possible future reference.

Are there protocols that GM has established over the last two years that you could envision keeping in place permanently?

Going forward, we see practices such as optional mask-wearing continuing for some time. Also, the testing protocols we’ve developed for COVID-19 may help us detect future variants and other diseases early to support mitigation plans. We’re going to know the impact. If we’re watching community rates through the CDC website and then see a spike in our facilities of people testing positive, we can be prepared—beef up our protocols, put people back in masks, enforce social distancing—to try to keep them protected. 

We’re also thinking about things like how close should our desks be and room capacity so we don’t have to change that every time something comes along. And we will continue to reach out to the public health department if there’s an outbreak in our community. 

After two years and many versions of this workplace health and safety guide, do you have any lessons for companies just now bringing employees back to the workplace?

You’ve got to communicate with your employees. Communication is key. You’ve got to be honest and open. Tell what you know and what you don’t know. Listen to everybody.