The New COVID Test Taker: Your Company

Kroger is giving workers the option of a COVID-19 take-home test, as firms jump ahead of some governments in the pandemic battle.

Take away a vaccine and masks, and it’s one of the best tactics for fighting the pandemic. Only now, it isn’t just governments that are trying to step up COVID testing.

In a series of bold moves, companies are creating their own COVID-19 tests for employees. The most recent is Kroger, the giant grocery store chain, which says it is providing a coronavirus test for its employees to use at home voluntarily. The results come back within two to three days—far faster than in many states—which gives the chain better odds of a safer employee base that is customer-centric.

“Kroger got the methodology” regarding access to such tests, which has frustrated other firms that are struggling to offer them, says Craig Rowley, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and global leader for the firm’s Consumer practice. “The number one thing retailers need right now is a safe environment for employees and customers.”

While it is among the first companies with an at-home version, Kroger joins a handful of giant firms taking testing in their own hands. Walmart, for example, has encouraged its employees to take tests that the firm has set up for customers in many of its store parking lots. Other firms, including Amazon, have brought outside laboratory firms to their stores and warehouses to administer tests on employees.

In doing so, such companies have essentially bypassed many state and city health agencies that are simply overwhelmed trying to process results quickly. The red tape was becoming a stumbling block as retailers looked to reopen this summer and ensure customers of a safe shopping experience. “There’s been frustration over the public sectors across the country,” says Christian Hasenoehrl, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and global account leader who works with Walmart, Tyson Foods, and other companies with a large employee base.

In the case of Kroger, employees who think they are sick undergo an online clinical assessment to receive a prescription for a free COVID-19 test. After getting the kit delivered at home, employees connect virtually with a Kroger health professional who walks them through using and packaging a nasal swab. A third-party lab analyzes the results. The grocer, which has more than 500,000 employees, says it hopes to be able to process 60,000 tests each week by the end of July.

Even so, experts do point out that testing alone isn’t enough to keep any workplace virus-free. For one thing, the test only measures a particular moment in time. And workers who unknowingly carry the virus without symptoms probably won’t test. “You’d have to test almost every day to control the virus,” says Hasenoehrl. “It’s why testing is just a tool in a tool kit.”

That’s also why, in the office setting, many firms are going to great lengths and expense to remodel spaces and processes at work. As for stores, essential retailers such as grocers and pharmacies have been doing this on the fly. When Korn Ferry recently canvassed essential retailers, 88% said they required employees to wear facemasks, 75% had installed sneeze guards at cash registers, and 54% were taking employees’ temperatures before the beginning of shifts. Some of this has been mandated by local governments, Rowley says, while the rest are taking these actions to keep employees and customers safe, provide good customer service, or both.

Companies that haven’t opened up their offices yet are remodeling floor plans, adding hand sanitizer stations, and instituting new rules about how many people can work in a certain room at any given time. This group also includes essential retailers; their frontline employees have been working in stores and warehouses, but their corporate personnel have mostly been working remotely.

Walmart is eyeing reopening its Bentonville, Arkansas, headquarters in mid-August, when schools in the area are set to open. It’s a lot of work, Hasenoehrl says. Those offices usually have about 14,000 employees and are mostly open plan, a format not very conducive to social distancing.