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Return to Work Recommendations

October 14, 2020 | by Viveka Krishnaswamy
Reviewed by real estate expert Michael Colacino

As your employees trickle back into the workplace, it’s important to make sure that they have all the tools they need to feel comfortable and safe. As an employer, you’ll need to make sure that you’ve thought through all the ways that the set up and flow of the workplace can affect an employee’s health and well-being. Health-focused steps like sanitizing the space frequently, providing PPE, conducting temperature checks, and enforcing social distancing are crucial in protecting your employees, but there are a variety of other measures to consider that may not seem obvious when crafting your return to work plan. We’ve put together some return-to-work considerations and recommendations that will help ensure your reopening plan is comprehensive.

Allow employees to return on their own accord

When bringing employees back to the office, your mantra should be “Safety first.” Employees should only come back if they feel that it is safe for them to return — if they feel forced, it will have a negative impact on employee engagement, productivity, and retention. Different employees will feel different levels of comfort in returning to work depending on their commute, their health, their cohabitants, among other factors. It’s important to support employees in their decisions on when to return.

Inspect your ventilation systems

Proper air ventilation and circulation is key in mitigating the spread of COVID-19. Ask your landlord to consult an HVAC professional in order to optimize your building ventilation systems. The CDC cites a few key steps for HVAC improvement:

  • Increase outdoor air ventilation, if possible
  • Increase airflow in all spaces that are occupied
  • Turn off any DCV controls to ensure that your HVAC doesn’t reduce the ventilation rate
  • Keep windows and other entryways to the outdoors open if the weather and air quality permit
  • Run the HVAC system for 2 hours preceding and following building occupancy
  • Have employees work in safe ventilation areas that avoid high-traffic parts of the building
  • Upgrade air filters; make sure that filters are properly installed so as to reduce filter bypass

Additionally, make sure that any fans in building restrooms are operating on the highest setting when anybody is in the building.

Devise a system for lunchtimes

Gathering around communal lunch tables is, sadly, not a COVID-safe option for spending lunchtimes in the office. If your building has a cafeteria or somewhere that serves employees lunch, it’s advisable to make sure that food comes individually wrapped. Any food-sharing should be prohibited, and social-distancing at lunchtime should be enforced.

If employees do use any kitchen appliances, such as the fridge, establish a procedure for kitchen hygiene. Employees should wash their hands before touching shared appliances, and disinfect any surfaces that they touch. To reduce exposure, you may recommend that employees eat at their workstations or in any available outside space (weather permitting).

Identify how many people can fit in the office at one time

Due to social distancing guidelines, your office space will have a reduced maximum capacity. Employees should be able to social distance, remaining at least 6 feet apart at all times when in the office. Additionally, the capacity of your conference rooms will be diminished as well, with social distancing in effect.

You may decide that a hub-and-spoke model (also known as a satellite office model) makes more sense for your business than a centralized office. This will help you reduce office density and more strategically place your office locations to account for employee commute, for collaboration, and employee experience. This can also help your business reduce rental costs, since suburban office space is often cheaper per square foot than office space in urban areas.

Make sure your space layout reflects current company needs

When people were coming into the office 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, your office layout likely reflected the day-to-day needs of a workplace at full capacity: you may have had a large bullpen, a few conference rooms and phone booths, a large lunch area, and a lounge. It’s likely that the pandemic has changed the workflow in your office, not just from a health and sanitization perspective, but from a business needs perspective. Evaluate whether your current layout is appropriate for the needs of your on-site employees today. Does one group primarily come in to collaborate and have strategic meetings? Does another come in primarily to divide their time between home and the workplace? In order to get the most out of your office when returning to work, it’s important to structure your space in such a way that employees can reap the benefits of being in the office.

Optimize your hybrid-work model

Going forward, it’s likely that your workforce will be divided into 3 groups: those who want to come to the office 5 days a week, those who want to split their time between the office and home, and those who want to work remotely full-time. With this hybrid distribution of your staff, it’s important to make sure that you optimize your hybrid-work model and standardize processes for all employees, both in-person and remote. To reduce the barriers between remote work and in-person work, McKinsey recommends continuous video-conferencing in which all members are equally able to participate, as well as virtual collaboration spaces. However, it’s important to tailor this approach to your company’s specific needs. Reflect on the ways in which your team collaborates, and how you can make those processes both remote- and in-person friendly.

Optimizing this model will extend to both your recruiting efforts and professional development initiatives as well: How will you ensure that prospective and existing employees get the support they need both virtually and in-person? Ensure that all employees have the tools they need to participate effectively and succeed in their job roles, no matter whether they’re remote or on-site.

In exploring the considerations outlined above, you’ll maximize the benefits of time in the office while providing a safe, productive environment for all who are ready to return.

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