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How Companies Can Plan To Reopen the Office

By Lisa Calick

States have begun to ease restrictions put on businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including laying out timelines for when many businesses may open. Companies now face significant challenges regarding how to reopen their offices safely.

A carefully planned approach to returning to work will be necessary to make sure workers are safe and confident and that the business can thrive.

Planning the Approach

The approach to opening is fairly straightforward — plan, open gradually, monitor — but each of those steps involves many more granular considerations. To start, here’s the order of operations for businesses looking to get their staff back to the office:

  1. Build a return-to-work plan
  2. Work through the stages of partial and full operations
  3. Increase resilience through monitoring, review, and enhancement

Engage with each stage fully before moving on to the next. If you jump ahead to opening before planning or to making changes before reviewing your progress, you run the risk of sabotaging your best efforts. Let’s look at the details of each of these stages:  

Build a return-to-work plan

Start by building a comprehensive plan of all that’s needed to reopen safely. Make sure all stakeholders are involved, and that decision-making authority is clear. The plan should define requirements and processes; identify assumptions, unknowns, and potential concerns; and involve detailed execution checklists for individual business units.

Work through the stages of partial and full operations

The return-to-work plan and reopening operations should be structured in four stages:  

  1. Operations as they currently stand
  2. Partial or limited opening
  3. Full resumption of operations at capacity 
  4. Monitoring for virus and improving operations to sustainably prevent it

Monitoring, review, and enhance 

Once companies have started reopening, and especially once they’ve reopened fully to capacity, it is essential that they continue to monitor for any resurgence of the virus. Doing so requires strict and well-defined protocols, accurate record keeping, and constant engagement from management. It will be important to stay on top of not only changes in government restrictions and agency guidance, but also the continued enforcement of company procedures put in place, so that changes can be made accordingly.

Specific Considerations

As companies begin to create a plan to reopen business operations in this unusual environment, there are many more specific things they will need to consider. Here are some of the most important. 

Official regulations and guidance

Reopening plans must comply with state and local orders, which often include health and safety protocols that didn’t exist before. In addition to checking with their state authorities, companies should refer to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Worker triage

Companies need to be thoughtful about which workers to bring back into the office when. Start only with those most needed to operate the business. If employees can telework, allow them to continue doing so for the time being. Use state requirements, business needs, and consideration for employees’ individual needs to guide these decisions. 

Effective communication

While much of a given workforce may be eager to return to some degree of normalcy, be prepared for some employees to express concern about returning to the office. Proactive and transparent communication is critical. As companies develop return-to-work plans, management should talk regularly with employees, get their feedback, and explain plans to keep the office safe. Take special consideration of the needs of employees in vulnerable groups, however be careful about treating vulnerable employees differently.

Office and building preparedness

It’s likely most companies will need to reconfigure office space or operational models to enable social distancing practices, which will be required. Some options are spacing out desks and adding barriers, staggering work shifts, limiting use of shared spaces, and defining one-way walking routes through the office. Ensuring that the space is clean and supplies are on-hand is also necessary. Set up a robust cleaning schedule, make disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer widely available, and ensure the HVAC system is clean and properly filtered.

Rules and safeguards

Very clear rules of behavior can go a long way toward safeguarding your workers. Many companies will want to require face coverings, direct disinfectant cleaning of common spaces after use, and encourage handwashing. Whether employees follow these rules is likely to depend more on the company culture and leadership than on punitive enforcement, so it will be important to set expectations.   

Health screening protocols

Health screening via questionnaires, health monitoring apps, or temperature checks is a common part of many reopening plans, and in some instances may be required by authorities for reopening. These practices must be done regularly and consistently, and it’s important to keep all results confidential. Have a plan for what to do if one of your employees presents with symptoms or tests positive. 

Operating in the post-COVID workplace will be a discomfort for many, from the clerk to the CEO. All of us are in this together, so it’s essential to bring workers into the process of confronting and working through this challenge. Companies that effectively plan, communicate, and sustain effective safety measures will be most likely to survive in the near term and thrive in the future.

Need help planning your reopening strategy? Our Wiss business recovery experts are here to help.

Coronavirus, COVID, COVID-19, Lisa Calick, Recovery, Reopening, Returning to work

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