Like so many other business owners, you’re rearing to get back to work in your office. Specifically, going back to what life was like before COVID-19. Your main goal for right now maybe simply returning to the office.
That’s not unreasonable. The rollout of the vaccine is here — and things are looking up. According to JLL’s “Human Experience” report, three in four workers wants to return to an office in the future. However, as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
In other words, don’t’ haphazardly and rush your reopening. Instead, start developing a plan that will ensure that you can safely and efficiently reopen your office. And, if you don’t know where to begin, here are some pointers to get the ball rolling.
Steps to Reopen Your Office — Brush Up on the Law and Health Guidelines
Without question, the step you must take is reviewing the legality of opening back up. For example, check your local guidelines to actually see if you can resume business operations. Even if you can, there may be limitations on how many people can be in the building simultaneously. The vaccine is helping a lot in getting permission to get back to work.
Because guidelines vary across states — you’re going to have to do this part on your own. But, simply Googling your state and business reopening guidelines should steer you in the right direction. If you rent your office space — you could ask your landlord. Or you can schedule a virtual meeting with stakeholders to discuss your reopening.
Another helpful tool? USA Today’s real-time tracker or COVID-19 trends and restrictions. It can at least give you an idea of whether or not your state is tightening or loosing-up regulations.
If you have the green light, there’s another legal matter to dig into. And, that’s if you can force employees back to work.
Well, that depends on the state. However, if your employers are considered essential or have a contract, employees must show up to work. But, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and/or the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) offers paid leave if an employee or someone they care for has been impacted by COVID. If you have any high-risk team members, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may compel you to let them continue working remotely.
Create a Written Return to Work Plan
“Most employers will return to the office in stages, with some employees continuing to work at home for an extended period of time,” writes Dawn Ross, Partner at Carle, Mackie, Power & Ross LLP. To be frank — expect this new hybrid workplace to be “the norm over the next several years.”
“Instead of allowing this to happen haphazardly, create a written return to work plan detailing who will be returning to the office,” advises Ross.
At the minimum, your “return to work plans” should include information like, “When they will be returning, and outlining what precautions have been put into place to keep employees and the general public safe.” Many “of these steps will take a month or more,” start planning earlier than later.
What should be in your written plan?
As a part of your plan, Ross also recommends doing the following;
- Survey your employees to find out who wishes to come back. While JLL found that a majority of employees want to return, another online survey shows that close to 30% would quit if forced back to the office.
- Order PPE. Place your order for cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, masks, and gloves.
- Daily health checks. Both the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)” recommend that all employers consider some kind of health check for employees coming into the workplace,” adds Ross. Additionally, “several counties have issued Health Orders instructing all employers to create policies that require employees to complete a health check before coming into the office. Many counties have created a daily health check app for this purpose.”
- Temperature checks and COVID-19 tests. At your expense, you can conduct and require employees to take temperature checks and COVID-19 tests.
- Have positive COVID-19 contingency plans. If an employee tests positive, you need to have a plan. It must “address contact tracing, notifying local health officials, and cleaning the affected area, and must include a written notification to employees working in proximity to the positive employee without disclosing the employee’s identity,” advises Ross. You should also have a procedure in place in case you must quickly shut down if there is a spike in numbers or the virus mutates faster than we think.
- Update IIPP plan. Your state has guidelines “requiring employers to include COVID-19 prevention measures in their Injury and Illness Prevention Programs (IIPPs).
- Worker’s compensation. Employees may be entitled to worker’s compensation if they test positive for COVID-19. If so, you should initiate the claims process.
You should also think about how many people will be allowed in the office? And, will have shifts between work-at-home and work-at-office?
Other reopening considerations.
You’re not done just yet. If employees are working from home because they don’t want to return, or you’ve had to reclose, you should have the following in place;
- “A written work from home policy that clearly states your expectations and requires your employees to commit to those expectations,” states Ross.
- Depending on your state, you may be required to reimburse employees for work-related expenses.
- Workplace safety can also apply to remote workers. You should provide them with ergonomically correct desks, chairs, and keyboards.
- Changing employees from salaried exempt to non-exempt.
- Taking a measured approach for those who do not want to return to the office.
If your business interacts with the general public, post required local postings for them to see. You can also refuse to serve customers who do not comply with safety precautions. And, you may also an Assumption of the Risk policy for customers.
Redesign the Office by Taking Recommended Safety Actions
Even with written policies in place, you’re still going to have to re-design the workplace before reopening. After all, you want to make sure that your team remains safe and healthy. Moreover, you have to follow local or state ordinances.
While this may seem overwhelming, the CDC has put together an extensive list of guidelines that your office should adopt. For starters, if the building has been unoccupied for an extended period of time, you should check for mold, rodent/pest, or mechanical problems. Don’t forget about looking for stagnant water and ensuring that ventilation systems are working properly.
In terms of decreasing transmission of COVID-19, concentrate on;
- Encouraging healthy hygiene practices by providing each employee with sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. Also, put up signage reminding people to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds and coughing into their elbows.
- Practicing social distancing by keeping chairs/desks at least six feet apart. You could also install physical barriers and stagger arrival/departure times.
- Reconfiguring walking areas so that everyone is walking in one direction.
- Replacing high-touch communal items, like coffee pots, with pre-packaged or single-serving.
- Discouraging large gatherings and canceling non-essential travel.
- Intensifying cleaning and disinfection, such as asking everyone to wipe down their workspaces at the ends of the day
To ensure that everyone is on the same page, the CDC suggests including and involving all employees. Also, you should hold seminars, workshops, and drills, so that you are aware of new workplace safety practices.
Bonus tip: If you don’t have the funds to do much of the above, unlock capital. For example, selling off assists that you no longer need. You may also be able to receive assistance through organizations like the Small Business Administration.
Implement Safeguards For The Ongoing Monitoring Of Employees
You should be commended for coming this far. But, this is another critical step to take before reopening. And, that’s implementing safeguards that will monitor your team. These include;
- Even if it’s not COVID, encouraging employees who are sick to stay home.
- Conducting daily in-person or virtual health checks.
- Monitoring absenteeism and offering more flexible time-off policies/schedules.
- Having contingency plans if an employee gets COVID-19.
- Keeping the lines of communication open with employees and Creating and testing emergency communication channels for employees and state and local health authorities.
What happens if an employee tests positive?
Cleaning and disinfecting the area where they were present is a must. The employee should also be quarantined until released by a physician or public health official. And, if any other employees were in close proximity, they should also be isolated for 14-days.
It’s important to keep all your employees notified. And, if they voice concerns, you may want to close the office back down until everyone tests negative.
Encourage Vigilance and Lead By Example
I get it. You’ve put in a lot of time in effort in reopening your office. However, that doesn’t mean things are going to go back to normal. You still need to maintain a regular cleaning and disinfection routine. You should also keep tabs on the number of COVID-19 cases in your area — if there’s a spike, you may want to be proactive and shut things down.
But, this shouldn’t completely fall on your shoulders. Even with these protocols in place, your employees need to hold themselves accountable.
Who is responsible for stopping the spread — all leaders and all employees
“The only way to create and sustain change is to have 200% accountability,” writes corporate trainer and author Joseph Grenny for HBR. “Employees must understand that they are not simply responsible for following safe practices themselves (the first 100%), they are also responsible for ensuring everyone around them does as well (the second 100%).”
Moreover, lead by example. If you aren’t practicing precautions like social distancing or mask-wearing, then why would your team follow suit? And, Greeny also recommends using moral messaging. “Make the moral case for changing behavior by telling stories of affected friends, family, or clients to bring the risks of non-compliance to life,” he writes.
Finally, create a culture of transparency. Don’t penalize employees if they experience symptoms or aren’t comfortable being around others. Let them know that it’s acceptable to remind others of the new workplace policies if they notice someone not following them.