The COVID-19 pandemic has had an enormous impact on businesses and workplaces, forcing many to close or operate remotely. Yelp reported that over 65,000 U.S. businesses listed on its site were marked temporarily closed in August 2020. By October, after many states and cities lifted stay-at-home orders, Gallup reported that 66% of businesses that went remote had all or some of their employees return to on-site work.
As more businesses begin to reopen their offices, they must have new protocols and strategies in place to promote a healthy workplace and protect the safety of their employees. As PwC found in a 2021 survey, fewer than one in five executives want to return to the office as it was before the pandemic.
The biggest challenges to reopening safely
The difficulties of reopening a workplace during a pandemic are many. Workplace leaders will need to consider a myriad of challenges and obstacles when devising their reopening strategies, including the following:
- Deciding the right time to reopen
- Do you wait until people are vaccinated?
- Do you absolutely need to return to the office or can you continue operating remotely?
- Do certain local or state restrictions prevent you from reopening until a certain time, or with certain capabilities?
- Phasing employees back into the office
- Are employees ready to return to the office?
- Should start dates be staggered?
- Will you schedule people to work on different days or at different times?
- Will elderly, immunocompromised, or at-risk employees continue working remotely?
- Helping teams transition from remote to in-person work
- Will employees with families need to coordinate child care?
- How can your company help employees address the mental and emotional stress of returning to the office, including the stress of potentially being exposed to COVID-19, having to commute again, and being away from their families?
- Downsizing office space
- If some teams continue working remotely, or if employees have been let go during the pandemic, should you minimize your office space upon returning?
- As CNBC reported, almost 45% of business executives think their companies will need less office space than they did before the pandemic.
- Maintaining proper social distancing
- How can you enforce safety standards when people are in the same building or the same room?
- Identifying and quarantining employees who become ill
- How will you test and screen employees for illnesses — COVID-19 or otherwise?
- Stopping the spread if someone contracts the virus
- Do you have contingency plans in place if someone becomes ill at the office?
Resources for asking the right questions before reopening
Workplace leaders can use the following resources to better understand the challenges of reopening their workspaces and ensure they’re asking the right questions about the capabilities of their offices and employees.
- CNBC, “Op-Ed: Here’s What CEOs Are Thinking and Worrying About as They Reopen Their Offices”: An in-depth look at executives’ top concerns about reopening, approaches to downsizing, and thoughts about integrating a remote workforce.
- Harvard Business Review, “8 Questions Employers Should Ask About Reopening”: A list of important questions, such as, “Who should return to the workplace?” and “What role can testing play in making workplaces safer?”
- PwC, “Returning to the Workplace After COVID-19: What Boards Should Be Thinking About”: A guide for management teams to decide when employees should return to the workplace and how to help them do it.
- U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “3 COVID-19 Reopening Challenges — and Solutions — for Your Business”: A rundown of common obstacles facing companies as they plan their reopening processes.
Strategies for creating a healthy workplace
Businesses will have to use carefully designed strategies to build and maintain a healthy workplace for their employees. They must consider the needs of the people, infrastructures, and processes that make their businesses run. Some suggested strategies include the following:
- Evaluating and updating building infrastructure: Take stock of ventilation systems, exhaust fans, water systems, air circulation, and hazard risks. Businesses can upgrade their HVAC systems or purchase several HEPA-grade air purifiers to improve air filtration and flow throughout the building. If weather permits, prepare to keep windows open, especially in common areas. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends implementing multiple ventilation strategies to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace.
- Gathering necessary supplies: Acquire hand soap, hand sanitizer, air filters, plexiglass dividers, masks, and gloves. Make these supplies accessible, and set up sanitation stations throughout the office, such as in reception areas, shared spaces, and bathrooms. You might also replace communal or reusable supplies, such as silverware and cups, with disposable and single-use alternatives.
- Setting up virtual training programs: Educate employees about workplace safety, gathering feedback and gauging expectations through online information sessions. Repeat these information sessions on a regular basis, such as weekly or monthly, to keep people updated about safety standards.
- Adjusting furniture layouts and common spaces: Accommodate social distancing requirements by moving desks six feet apart and eliminating or updating communal gathering spaces. Lounges and cafeterias, for example, can be retrofitted as new offices or desk spaces for employees. Businesses might also install plexiglass barriers between desks, in conference rooms, or at reception areas to prevent the spread of airborne germs while still allowing for face-to-face communication. Businesses need to make sure that accessibility standards for workers with disabilities remain in place.
- Setting up daily health checks: Ensure you have adequate supplies for temperature checks and/or rapid COVID-19 tests, as necessary. Thermal scanning, for example, can be used to check for fever, which is a common symptom of COVID-19, according to the CDC. You can also train people to conduct self-checks virtually or at home, eliminating the risk of having infected employees come to the office.
- Posting signage to enforce best practices: Set up reminders for employees about social distancing, employing proper handwashing techniques, and wearing masks. These practices are especially important in breakrooms, cafeterias, and lobbies, where people are likely to gather.
- Creating a schedule for disinfecting work areas: Work with teams to frequently disinfect surfaces and equipment with antibacterial cleaners at least once each day. Assign different people to disinfect high-touch objects such as light switches, doorknobs and drawer handles, and handrails.
- Developing a plan for isolating employees who become ill: People may acquire and spread COVID-19 without immediately exhibiting symptoms. If someone becomes ill or is diagnosed at the office, use the proper procedures for quarantining them, sending them home or to receive medical attention. Test colleagues in their vicinity, disinfect surfaces, and transition back to remote work if necessary.
Resources for reopening your workplace post-COVID-19
Workplace leaders can use the following resources to inform their reopening strategies, ensuring that they adhere to government guidelines and recommendations for creating a healthy workplace.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “COVID-19: Workplaces and Businesses”: Guidance for employers and employees, including people in essential services, transportation, and delivery, to protect themselves and their communities from COVID-19.
- Deloitte, “Workforce Strategies for Post-COVID Recovery”: Tactics for helping workplace leaders navigate the three stages of a crisis: respond, recover, thrive.
- Fortune, “Need Help with Reopening Your Business After COVID-19? There Are Apps for That”: An inside look at back-to-work apps from companies like Salesforce, ServiceNow, and Appian.
- McKinsey & Company, “Reimagining the Office and Work Life After COVID-19”: An outline of the four steps to reimagining how workplaces operate after a pandemic.
- OSHA, “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19”: Recommendations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration based on past infection prevention and hygiene practices.
- U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “12 Ways to Prepare Your Office for Post-Coronavirus Reopening”: A range of creative ideas for rearranging office furniture and utilizing innovative materials to enforce social distancing.
- World Health Organization, “Getting Your Workplace Ready for COVID-19”: Tips for preventing the spread of COVID-19 and managing the risks of workplace meetings and travel.
The key to a healthy workplace
As businesses reopen their workplaces amid and post-COVID-19, it’s important to have comprehensive plans to transition employees back into the office, maintain a healthy workplace, and enforce safety and wellness standards. Despite vaccinations and greater testing, the virus is expected to be around for years to come, impacting how people work, gather, and communicate.
While government organizations and businesses have provided guidelines and suggestions for building reopening strategies, each company leader must consider the unique needs of their own employees and offices. This way, they can develop the processes they need to ensure the well-being of their workforce and continue to operate successfully.