You Want to Reopen: Can You Keep Employees Safe In-Office?

You Want to Reopen: Can You Keep Employees Safe In-Office?

First, the bad news…

With the U.S. economy in crisis, reopening shuttered businesses became a higher priority in many states than continuing to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 cases. Health officials warned that reopening for Memorial Day weekend would ensure that, in two to three weeks, we would see a sharp spike in new COVID-19 cases. Guess whose projections turned out to be accurate? States that rushed to reopen are having to reimpose shutdown restrictions as the virus surges.

Too many new cases will result in a repeat of what happened in large urban hospitals in March and April—overwhelmed staff and systems, depleted supplies and protective gear, and an elevated death rate. New York City’s true death toll was larger than reported at the crisis’ peak; many people died at home, died of virus-caused heart attacks or strokes, or were never collected by ambulances because the 911 system was overwhelmed. No one wants to see the dead stacked in refrigerated trucks or exhausted nurses and doctors repeated across the nation. Yet we’re seeing that now in ArizonaTexasFloridaIowa. Alarmingly, new cases among 18-40-year-olds are increasing, thanks to failures to mandate mask-wearing and social distancing combined with the arrival of summer weather.

Inconsistent state reporting of cases, hospitalizations, deaths and recoveries means that Americans have no idea of the real infection rates in their communities. Failure to collect and report the right data is suddenly receiving national attention. Trying to tweak data reporting after the fact makes it not only tough to gauge how safe it may be to reopen, but raises distrust in the institutions and leaders we rely on during a crisis. Even New York City, estimated to have nearly 20% of residents with COVID-19 antibodies—in other words, a start on herd immunity—expects periodic spikes requiring rolling shutdowns. Most other areas of the country now experiencing viral surges aren’t doing well at flattening the curve. Many of those areas have smaller, less well-prepared hospitals and staff with less ICU training. The future looks grimmer by the day…

Meanwhile, small business owners are desperate to get back to work. The bottom line is, without widespread, reliable testing, and mandated shutdowns, COVID-19’s one guarantee is ongoing disruption. As a New York Times article put it, the United States is the virus’ playground. Globally, health experts are stating that “The U.S. has given up on the coronavirus.” That leaves small businesses to cope with the varied and sometimes alarming responses of state governments, or hope local governments are given authority to manage what they can within their own communities. The onus is on small business owners to protect their firms and people.

Planning to Reopen

In the midst of this, Second Wind members began in May sharing plans for possibly reopening offices at Second Wind Forums. A North Carolina agency reported talking with local medical/health officials and incorporating their advice to “wait awhile” with employee reservations about a safe reopening. A South Dakota principal reached out to other agencies to discuss their reopening plans; most agencies intended to remain closed into June and then assess options.

Texas and Minnesota agencies said employees aren’t eager to return to the office right now, but managers are working on acquiring PPEs and supplies to ensure when they can reopen, they can do so safely. A few planned a phased reopening—some employees coming to the office while others continued to work from home, or staggering workdays by team. An Indiana principal stated her concerns that many businesses don’t have the choice of working from home, and “they deserve all the elbow room possible to get back to work safely whilst we stay out of their way.”

Employees will be worried about their safety returning to workspaces while the COVID-19 virus is still spreading. Companies need to think carefully about creating a safe—and compliant—work environment.

  • Which operational areas can be safely reopened while observing social distancing and protective gear requirements?
  • Are key employees in these areas able to return? (Pre-existing conditions may need to be considered.)
  • Will other employees need training to step in where high-risk employees may not immediately return?
  • Is your workspace designed to enable social distancing? Can you adjust layouts and space to accommodate social distancing? Can you afford new space dividers or protective gear?
  • If bringing back the entire workforce at once is not do-able, what alternatives can be tested?
  • Rolling employee schedules to keep daily numbers within a safe range;
  • Work/share arrangements where two employees share one job and alternate in-office days;
  • Restricting how many people can be in-office at one time;
  • Requiring all employees to wear face masks and sanitize their own work areas;
  • Ensuring employees who can or should continue to work from home have technology and project access needed to do their jobs and stay connected with teams;
  • Assisting employees to ensure home system security, protect client information and secure the agency’s online interactions;
  • Recalling laid-off or furloughed employees as able or necessary.

How Second Wind Members Are Getting Back to the Workplace

In mid-June, we surveyed members about their reopening plans. (Download the Small Agency Back to Work Survey or find it at Second Wind’s COVID Help & Resources page.) [page link]

Roughly 48% of members have returned to physical offices, but an equal number are continuing to work remotely. Nearly 65% of responding agencies have a return-to-work strategy, with 22% working on one. The majority are leaning on guidelines from state/local authorities and CDC recommendations.

To accommodate reopening during a pandemic, 45% of agencies will require employees to wear masks at least some of the time… but a surprising 41% will make no such requirements. Of those requiring masks, the agency will provide them to employees (48%). In conjunction with PPEs (masks, gloves, etc.), agencies will incorporate sanitizing supplies, routines, and stations, disinfect and clean offices more frequently, limit group meetings, set social distancing protocols and restrict office access to outside visitors.

Also, 42% say they will stagger work shifts, working hours, or arrival/departure times to help with social distancing and reduce accidental interactions. Other actions include instituting one-way floor plans and making larger commons areas their new designated meeting spaces so social distancing can be achieved. Seventeen percent say they’re bringing all employees back at once.

Sixty-three percent of agencies say they can achieve social distancing in offices without major reconfiguration of workspace, and an equal number plan to make only some workspace changes. While nearly 28% of agencies say they will conduct employee temperature checks as employees enter the office, 27% say they will require no testing or monitoring, relying on employees to self-monitor. Seventy percent will require employees to self-isolate if they are exposed or become symptomatic.

Forty-eight percent of agencies say they have updated employee policies around COVID-19 protocols and practices. But 86% of agencies will explain and educate employees in the practices that will be in play to safely reopen. Seventy-two percent have protocols ready should an employee test positive for the virus, including alerting other employees and closing the physical office for a quarantine period. Just 27% of agencies say they believe employees are very comfortable with returning to physical offices, with 60% saying they are only somewhat comfortable; 16% report employees are not comfortable with returning to the workplace.

Several agencies reported polling employees anonymously about reopening or collaborating with employees to develop a reopening plan. Many are examining the possibility of staying virtual—there is general agreement everyone has been very productive, and clients have adapted to remote working, too. Also, employees who are parents are contending with closed daycares and summer camps. Individual agencies say they are not rushing to return to the offices.

Ongoing, agencies are very concerned about the possibility of an economic recession (56%); COVID-19’s financial impact on the agency (47%); renewed shutdown orders should cases spike (47%); and possible client losses (47%). Compassion points to the 56% of agencies somewhat concerned about employees catching COVID-19, and the 58% worrying about employer responsibility should that happen.

Ninety-three percent of agencies anticipate work-from-home flexibility will be a lasting change resulting from the COVID-19 crisis. Another 26% will reconsider hanging on to physical workspace, and 34% anticipate restricting authorized travel. Other comments included taking a cautious approach to reopening and cited improving safety measures to help employees be comfortable again in the physical workspace.

Uniting Distributed Teams

As you move forward with reopening plans, be sensitive to the needs of parents with at-home school-age children, or who are caregivers for older or ill relatives. Address individual employee needs—pre-existing conditions should be taken into account. Also expect that many employees may become ill as the virus surges or reoccurs; update or adjust sick leave policies  in tune with the reality of COVID-19. (People laid up with severe cases of the virus report being sick and exhausted for a month or longer, and that’s without hospitalization.) Take advantage of newly available mental health apps that can assist employees with anxiety, isolation and managing recovery.

Some employees will opt to continue working from home; recognize that you will be able to manage your distributed teams the same way you did while all working from home, using teleconferencing tools, cloud-based communications and collaboration systems. Stay in close contact with your working-from-home team members—don’t neglect them for more visible in-office employees.

Finally, principals need to keep a check on their own health and well-being. Stress and anxiety is no better for our immune systems than isolation.

Reopening is step one in moving through the COVID-19 crisis. We’re in this for the long haul. And we will get through it. Best of luck with reopening, and contact us as you hit speed bumps and obstacles and need some advice. Stay safe and be well.

Download this OSHA COVID-19 Safer Workplace Poster.


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