Remember the days when you used to get up in the morning and go to the office? You’d make the 20-minute drive downtown to your building where you’d cram into a packed elevator, eventually getting off on your floor and greeting the receptionist with a quick wave. Walking past rows of cubicles on your way to your desk, maybe you stopped to talk to a co-worker or grabbed a fresh mug of coffee from the kitchen. Eventually you’d settle in at your desk to answer a few emails before your morning team meeting. Throughout the day, there would be more emails, a client meeting or two, maybe lunch out with co-workers or an afternoon break in the common area.
Then came COVID-19 and everything changed. Your home became your office, there was no more commute, meetings changed to conference calls, and happy hours moved to Zoom. Now, as some states begin to slowly reopen, everyone is wondering… what happens next? Can offices safely reopen? Can we go back to the way work was done before?
The answer is, like most things these days, a little complicated. While some offices will be able to reopen, they’ll likely look and operate significantly different than they did before this pandemic. Other businesses might not reopen, preferring to continue with a work from home model until COVID testing or a vaccine are widely available.
Since returning to work is likely to look different for everyone, we put together a few points to consider in determining when and how to reopen your office. Here are four key questions to ask when preparing your team to return to work.
The first question to ask of any office reopening plan or discussion should be the why. Why does the office or business need to reopen? What is the main trigger that would result in a return to work plan? Given the continuing risks associated with reopening and the potential for employees’ health to be impacted, having a justification for the why of reopening is crucial. Sure, it’s tempting to want to reopen and get back to “normal” operations, but the reality is normal looks a lot different these days.
So, why are you reopening the office and returning to work? Are there projects or processes that can only be completed in person? Are certain teams able to work more effectively from the same place? Are you providing an important service or product? Make sure you’re clear on the why before you move to the how.
Once you’ve decided to reopen the office, you’ll need to think about who is returning to work first. Are there certain departments or jobs that are crucial and thus a higher priority? Are there employees who can continue working from home effectively? What about team members who are unable to return due to health reasons or need to continue caring for children and family? Some employees might feel increased anxiety or fear around the return to work. Are there accommodations that can be made to meet these needs?
Creating a phased re-opening plan is a helpful way to answer these questions. Each phase of the plan would address which employees return to work, and what is expected of them when they do. For example, maybe Phase 1 means reopening the office but only allowing 20% of your employees to return. Activities within the office would be limited, meetings would be avoided and group gathering of any kind would be prohibited. Phase 2 could include more of the workforce, perhaps up to 50%, but restrictions would still be enforced, or work would be done in shifts to avoid having too many people in the office at any one time. Throughout these stages, employees who need to stay home are still able to do so. A phased approach allows you to test out new policies and adjust at each stage, stepping back a phase as needed or moving forward until the full team has returned to work.
The appearance of many offices has changed over the past decade, with companies moving away from individual offices to more open workspaces and common areas designed for increased interaction and collaboration. Unfortunately, post-coronavirus, offices are likely to look quite different. In order to maintain social distancing, employees will have to work further apart, common spaces like meetings rooms, social areas, and the office kitchen could be restricted or closed. If your office has high traffic areas, are there ways to limit or redirect traffic so there’s less unnecessary contact?
You’ll also need to think about employee health and safety standards. Will personal protective equipment like face masks be required? Are you going to check the temperature of people entering the office? How will you clean and disinfect workspaces? What about deliveries or clients visiting the office? Once you determine how the office will look and operate, be sure to communicate new policies and procedures via email and with posted signs. Reminding your team and any office visitors of social distancing guidelines and health regulations is an important step in ensuring post-COVID rules and policies are followed.
Reopening your office post-COVID will necessitate many changes that affect your employees’ ability to come to work and do their jobs. That’s why the final key question to ask when thinking about reopening your office focuses on expectations. For employees who return to work, what are you expecting them to accomplish? What about team members who, for various reasons, continue working from home? How will you bridge the gap between these groups and encourage continued collaboration? What steps are you taking to encourage patience and understanding among coworkers and teams?
These are challenging and uncertain times. While COVID-19 is certain to have long-term consequences, it’s unclear what offices will look like in the near future. What are you doing to ensure your team is ready to return to work?