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Creating a Plan to Reopen the Office as Covid-19 Restrictions are Lifted

May 29, 2020 | by Jo Cipolla
Reviewed by real estate expert Michael Colacino

Across the United States, people have implemented social distancing measures intended to limit person-to-person interaction and slow the spread of COVID-19. As a consequence, thousands of businesses have shut their office and retail spaces to wait it out. For some businesses—small businesses in particular—the closure could be permanent. If your business has weathered the shutdown, perhaps by maintaining remote operations, you are likely beginning to think about how you will reopen your office or retail locations. Guidelines for doing so depend on state legislation, business industry, company size, and other considerations. Here are some reopening tips to help you begin.

Put Together a COVID-19 Task Force

Reopening the office in the aftermath of the COVID-19 shutdown will not be simple, so don’t try to make your plan alone. New information is constantly becoming available, so setting up a team to tackle the reopening plan should help to stay informed and update your plan in real-time. Include in your COVID-19 task force executive leadership, legal input, human resources personnel, communication specialists, facilities managers, and potentially your landlord. Then, decide on your goals and assign responsibilities. Your task force may need to meet daily or weekly, depending on how complicated reopening the office will be.

Communicate with Employees

As you establish a plan to move forward, you need to communicate that plan to your employees.

  • Decide what channel you will use to primarily communicate with employees about reopening plans: Will you use email? Will you schedule regular Zoom meetings? Will you use an online portal? Pick one method and stick to it so employees will always know where to look for updates. Then, use simple messaging to let your staff know what’s happening.
  • Ask employees for feedback: Depending on how large your office is, you might consider creating a survey. How comfortable are employees with returning to the office? What concerns do they have? Some employees might have health conditions that make them more susceptible to suffering from complications due to COVID-19, or they may be caring for family members who are ill. Be sure to empathize with these situations and take them into account when making your plan.
  • Educate employees: The workplace will look different when employees return, so they need to know what to expect. In general, communication with employees regarding reopening falls into two categories: what you’re asking them to do to maintain workplace safety (PPE, social distancing, hand washing, etc.) and what you’re going to do to maintain workplace safety (site sanitization, limiting the number of people in the office, etc.)

Decide When Workers Will Return to the Office

Per the Whitehouse Guidelines for Opening Up America Again, businesses should allow as many employees as possible to continue working remotely in Phase 1 and Phase 2 of reopening. In particular, prioritize letting people who are at a higher risk for COVID-19 complications to continue teleworking as long as possible. Even in later phases of reopening, most companies are planning to bring employees back to the office in stages to help prevent a second wave of the virus, according to the Lear Corporation Safe Work Playbook.

  • If you have employees who cannot work off-site, ideally, they should come back to the office first, if possible.
  • Offer to let employees work in shifts so that they do not have to travel during rush hour and so the number of people in the office will be reduced.
  • Consider the possibility of letting employees continue working remotely or having them come to the office only several days per week instead of every day. This limits exposure to others and allows for fewer people to be working in the office at a time.
  • Be sure to treat your employees fairly, not providing special treatment based on rank.

Prepare the Office

Before anyone returns to the office building, prepare the environment to prioritize employee health and safety.

  • Obtain relevant Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): “PPE has become commonplace in most workspaces in response to COVID-19,” according to a Holland & Knight report. Find and follow local or state guidelines for mask and other PPE usage as guidelines vary depending on geographic location. For example, New York and Massachusetts require masks inside grocery stores and retail stores, but California and Florida currently don’t have those requirements. The CDC recommends that people wear cloth masks (not surgical masks or N95 respirators outside a healthcare setting) in situations that make social distancing difficult. If you require or ask your employees to wear cloth masks to work, provide instructions regarding how and when to wear them. For example, employees do not need to wear a mask while they are alone in their private office. Also, consider providing masks for your employees so they don’t have to buy them.
  • Reorganize the space to allow for social distancing: Experts recommend staying at least six feet away from others. Some office setups will pose more of a challenge for social distancing than others. In an office building where most employees already have private offices, this will be easy. Open office setups might pose more of a challenge.
    • Try reducing the number of people in the office by having employees work in shifts, continue working from home, or work in the office only part of the time.
    • Try to rearrange furniture so that workers are sitting at least six feet apart.
    • Schedule meetings via Zoom instead of in-person, reduce the frequency of meetings, and/or reduce the number of people required to attend meetings.
    • Close common areas like kitchens and conference rooms or impose rules regarding how they will be used.
    • See more ideas for making your office social-distancing friendly.
    • Some businesses may need to move to a different office building to make social distancing possible. Contact SquareFoot to get expert help relocating.
  • Ramp up cleaning/sanitization efforts: Besides shutting down certain areas of the office and spreading out desks to allow for social distancing, businesses should implement stringent cleaning and sanitization protocol for office spaces. Before anyone comes back to work, the entire office needs to be disinfected. As a general rule, offices should be cleaned daily and deep cleaned weekly, according to Lear Corporations Safe Work Playbook. Clean high-touch surfaces, such as bathrooms, doorknobs, lockers, and office supplies multiple times each day. Replace or disinfect HVAC air filters to ensure the air circulating in the office is fresh.
  • Add workplace signage about new workplace behavior: After you’ve properly communicated with employees regarding new procedures and prepared the office for workplace safety, it’s time to add reminders to the office space. We are all getting used to living in a world where COVID-19 is a constant threat, so your employees will need reminders. Consider adding signs reminding employees to wash their hands, information for sanitization personnel regarding how often various areas need to be cleaned, and reminders to clean personal spaces, for example.

Update Employee Hygiene Expectations

Ask employees to “wash their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available,” the CDC recommends. Employees should wash their hands before and after work shifts, before and after breaks, after using the restroom, after sneezing or coughing, before and after eating, and before and after touching face masks. Instruct employees not to touch their face with unwashed hands. Remind employees to cough and sneeze into a tissue or the inside of their elbow, not into their hands or toward others. While it seems like most people know this already, the information is clearly outlined on the CDC website, which means some people still need to be informed of best practices for hand hygiene.

Create a Screening and Monitoring Plan

When employers, landlords, employees, vendors, and visitors work together to maintain hygiene and social distancing, risk of exposure to COVID-19 will be reduced. However, COVID-19 is still a threat. Screening for symptoms, testing, tracking, and isolating are still key components in the fight against the pandemic. See the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers Responding to Coronavirus Disease 2019 for details. Here are some key guidelines for screening and monitoring COVID-19 in the workplace:

    • Screen employees for symptoms before they enter the building. The CDC recommends checking employee temperatures before each shift. Be sure symptom checks are respectful and allow for social distancing, implementing PPE.
    • Employees who feel sick or have symptoms should stay home: Communicate to your employees that if they feel sick or experience symptoms consistent with COVID-19, they should contact their supervisor then stay home and definitely not come to the office. They should follow CDC-recommended steps including staying home except to seek medical care, calling a healthcare provider, and isolating away from others.
    • Employees who have symptoms should be sent home: If an employee arrives to work sick or becomes sick during the workday, he or she should be immediately separated from other people and sent home.
    • Inform employees who may have been exposed to COVID-19 at work: When informing employees that they may have been exposed to COVID-19 at work, maintain confidentiality. The Public Health Recommendations for Community-Related Exposure indicate that potentially exposed employees should stay home for two weeks, work from home if possible, and self-monitor for symptoms of illness.

Plan for the Future

The COVID-19 pandemic is still unfolding, and new recommendations and best practices will arise as time goes on. Even after the office reopens, continue meeting with your COVID-19 Task Force to keep prioritizing employee health and safety.

This document is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice. Be sure to follow guidelines from the CDC and your local health department as well as seeking legal advice when preparing your workplace for the return of your employees.

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