If the past year has taught you anything, it’s that your team is incredibly resilient. You all transitioned to remote work like champs, navigating through roadblocks and leaping over hurdles left and right. Now, everyone is itching to come back. You miss the sense of community, the desk and workspace to call your own, and the level of productivity you can only achieve when you’re on-site. The question on everyone’s mind is, “When is it safe to return to the office?”
We’ve put together some tips for returning to the office alongside advice on making the right call for your workplace.
Is It Safe to Return to the Physical Office?
Whether it’s safe to return to the office depends on many factors. The right call for one office in a particular part of the country isn’t the same as one for another. For the most part, it is safe to return to work if you time everything to align with state and local reopening schedules and can implement the right safety protocols.
One of the primary considerations is the state and local guidelines for returning to work in your area. Most states have instituted reopening plans that align with the government’s recommended reopening procedures and follow a three-phase approach. Monitor your state’s current status and any city or town guidelines available. If your state has entered Phase One or an equivalent, it is safe to open as long as you follow all guidelines for employers from your state and local government.
For example, under federal guidelines, in Phase One, schools should remain closed. However, in Phases Two and Three, they may reopen. Other specific types of businesses will have different rules to follow under these guidelines and any regulations set by your state. In general, offices can reopen during Phase One, so long as they:
Continue to promote telework where feasible.
Return in phases where possible.
Keep common areas closed.
Enforce social distancing at work.
Minimize non-essential travel and observe state guidelines on isolation following travel.
Consider special accommodations for the most vulnerable personnel.
Besides the federal, state and local determinations, deciding when it is safe to return to the office rests on your company’s readiness. Can your office accommodate the safety measures that will protect your workers best?
Reopening often requires facilities to change their cleaning procedures and make them more thorough and frequent. The American Industrial Hygiene Association recommends examining your ventilation system to ensure your building receives the maximum amount of fresh, filtered air. You’ll also need to reconfigure the workplace to promote social distancing and create physical barriers where physical distancing isn’t possible. When you can accommodate the necessary changes, you can begin planning your return to the office.
Considerations for Returning to the Office
When deciding how and when to come back, review federal, state and local guidelines for returning to the office. New hotspots will continue to crop up, and new rules will likely follow as the situation develops. Likewise, as cases go down, you may find the recommendations in your area become more relaxed. Keep your finger on the pulse and use that to inform reopening schedules and safety policies.
As you decide how to return to the office, address these three things:
The number one consideration as you plan your return to the office is your team. These are the people you are trying to protect. Planning a successful return to the office hinges on their feelings of safety and security.
One important consideration is your employee demographics. Certain individuals are part of high-risk populations. Older adults and people with underlying health conditions are at greater risk of complications. Other members of your staff share households with these vulnerable individuals. If your employees rely on public transportation, they have higher chances of catching diseases and exposing others.
Another important consideration is whether your employees feel comfortable and want to return. Only 33.4% of employees believe their jobs can be performed from home with 100% efficiency. Many employees are less productive while working from home, especially with a less-than-ideal setup. Others feel just as effective working remotely or are hesitant to return because of health and safety concerns. Considering those preferences can help you determine which roles to bring back soonest and which to phase in more slowly.
An employee survey can help you evaluate general preferences across departments. It can also help you determine which employees fall into high-risk categories. If you do have some employees who have health concerns, consider special accommodations that will grant them the most protection while you reopen.
2. Infrastructure and Office Layout
When reopening your office, remember it won’t look like it once did. You’ll likely need some infrastructure, layout and policy changes to ensure your workplace is safe. Consider how possible these changes are as you plan to reopen.
One infrastructure upgrade to consider is the air exchange and air filtration system. The amount of fresh air in an enclosed space can significantly impact the transmission rate for many illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend increasing ventilation rates and inspecting the system. Increasing the amount of outdoor air vented into a space dilutes the air, curbing airborne transmission. Work with a heating, ventilation and air conditioning professional to upgrade your ventilation and air filtration system.
Just as critical are the physical layout changes. Promoting effective social distancing and keeping workers at least 6 feet apart may require you to rearrange your current office layout. The best practice is to arrange workstations at least 6 feet apart and minimize the number of employees facing each other. If that’s not possible, the next solution is to incorporate dividers. At Arnold’s Office Furniture, we can help you in both departments with our line of cubicles for social distancing. At a minimum of 6 square feet, these cubicles include high partitions for maximum safety.
Other layout changes might include replacing high-touch amenities like water dispensers with touchless models. You might also install an acrylic partition at the reception desk. To encourage hand hygiene, you might include touchless hand sanitizer dispensers alongside high-touch surfaces like elevators or doors. Some common areas may be closed off and others rearranged.
3. Safety Protocols
Finally, consider which safety protocols to implement. Develop a thorough safety plan and make all protocols clear to your team as you prepare to reopen. The more comprehensive your plan is, the more agile you’ll be in responding to specific safety scenarios. You’ll know how to react if employees aren’t correctly wearing their masks or social distancing.
Many businesses encourage employees to self-monitor their symptoms and stay home when feeling sick. Others screen employees with temperature checks at the door. Making a choice between self-monitoring and professional screening may depend on your organization’s size and resources. Some workplaces may even seek to provide weekly or bi-weekly COVID-19 testing for their team.
Another measure to include in your safety protocols is a playbook for confirmed or suspected infection. You may need to implement a policy for quarantining the infected employees and anyone exposed. You’ll likely require an employee to get clearance from a medical professional before returning to work. Depending on the office layout, you might consider deep cleaning the areas where the employee spent time.
When Are Big-Name Companies Looking to Return?
National companies set an excellent example for the many companies wondering when to return to the office after COVID-19. While every company is different, looking to others as you form your own reopening plan can be helpful. Many of America’s largest companies are looking at the summer of 2021 for their return dates. Many of these companies first planned on September 2020, which later got pushed to January 2021.
Google: Google recently delayed its reopening from the end of 2020 to July 2021.
Uber: While workers can return to the office earlier if they want, Uber employees may continue working from home until June 2021.
Airbnb: Likewise, Airbnb employees have the option to work from home until August 2021.
Salesforce: Salesforce employees may work from home until July 31, 2021.
Amazon: While Amazon previously had a return-to-work date of October 2, 2020, the company extended the work from home policy to January 2, 2021.
Discover: Discover employees may work from home through the end of 2020. If their state’s guidelines allow, they can return sooner.
Many other companies are making headlines by permanently restructuring to accommodate remote work. Employees will have the option to work from home full time or split their time between the physical office and their home office. Dropbox will become a remote-first company and maintain flexible Dropbox Studios for when employees need or want to meet in person. Microsoft will also allow employees to work from home for less than half the workweek and allow some permanent work-from-home setups.
The hybrid model could be the best option for the majority of workplaces. Most jobs need some personal interaction or benefit from the sense of community the physical office provides. When surveyed on their post-pandemic work preferences, most Americans preferred a hybrid model. While 19.1% say they want to work from home on occasion, another 36.4% opted for a schedule allowing them to work from home one to four days a week.
How to Prepare for Your Return to the Office
The prospect of getting the team back together is exciting. Once you’ve decided on the right time to call everyone back and know what is possible for safety infrastructure, you can begin plotting your triumphant return.
Here’s how to return to the office safely:
1. Decide Which Employees to Bring Back
Many workplaces are developing new, hybrid work environments. Employees who can work remotely will stay home, while those who need their own workspace, specialized equipment or face-to-face communication will return to the office. Or, maybe you’ll let employees split their workweek between the office and their homes. If your employees have a say in whether they work from home or return, make sure you know who chooses each option and reorganize the office appropriately.
If the decision depends on employees’ ability to perform offsite, identify which employees to bring back. The government recommends calling workers back in phases if possible. So, even if you’re planning to bring every employee back to the office, it still makes sense to prioritize based on which team members are most critical to have in the physical office.
2. Adopt New Policies
Changing the way your employees work is crucial to curbing the spread of viruses. For example, many businesses set limits on how many people may enter an elevator or bathroom at once. These policies need enforcement, communication and flexibility. Limiting the number of elevator users might have the unintended consequence of additional crowding in the main lobby. In that case, you may also need to stagger arrivals and departures to avoid crowds. Be sure to keep your return to work policies flexible and update them regularly to address new concerns.
These new policies will affect every area of your office. Here’s how they might look in different locations:
Workstations: Besides requiring employees to stay 6 feet apart, you might reduce the tasks that require many people to be in a single area. For example, encourage going paperless to avoid a long line at the printer or copy machine.
Conference rooms: Even when on-site, employees should default to virtual meetings. When physical meetings are essential, you might impose a limit of 10 people per session. Encourage quick discussions and discourage lingering or socializing. Make sure conference rooms are cleaned and disinfected at least daily.
Lobby: Your new guest policies may ask that all visitors phone ahead and submit to a temperature check on arrival. Make sure the room is disinfected at least daily. Any frequently touched surfaces, like check-in tablets, should be disinfected even more.
Common areas: Provide signage regulating any rules regarding common areas, such as a time limit or maximum capacity. Make disinfecting wipes readily available and require employees to disinfect anything they touch, such as coffee machines and water dispensers.
Cafeterias: Consider staggering meal schedules and offering pick-up options to avoid crowding. Replace self-serve food, dishware and condiments with single-serve, individually wrapped versions. Space out seating to encourage social distancing and implement physical barriers between seats.
Restrooms: Bathrooms should be cleaned and disinfected twice as often as they were before your office closed. Consider a policy limiting restroom occupancy for multi-stall bathrooms, and take measures to ensure the doors can be accessed with limited contact. Require toilet lids to be closed before flushing and employees to wash their hands. Disconnect air dryers and replace them with touchless paper towel dispensers.
3. Communicate and Educate
Before employees return, they need to know what will be expected of them and how they can stay safe while in the office. Communicating with your team before the big return is critical.
Tell your team what to expect on arrival, whether it’s a new check-in procedure or health screenings at the door. Make them aware of all new policies, including proper hygiene and expectations about disinfecting their own spaces and communal surfaces after use. Provide free training, either virtually or in the office, regarding all the new policies, infrastructure and layouts. Make employees aware of everything you’re doing to keep them safe.
4. Provide Resources and Support
Your team may need help adjusting to their new work environment or feeling safe while in public. Providing a “back to work” kit that includes personal protective equipment (PPE) and hand sanitizer will help employees feel safe at the office. You may also want to provide other wellness and mental health support to ease stress during the transition.
One way you can provide assistance and keep your office safer at the same time is to offer incentives for safer behavior. If many employees use public transportation to get to work, offering parking or travel reimbursement can be a welcome gesture that also protects your team.
Revise policies to follow new laws and to make accommodations for high-risk employees. You may need to make sick leave policies more forgiving to accommodate those who contract COVID-19 or those who must quarantine. Providing new health benefits can also go a long way here.
Return to the Office in Style With Arnold’s Office Furniture
As your team steps into the office for the first time in a while, everything is bound to feel different. One way to make that transition a little easier on everyone is with new furniture. Some stylish, comfortable office furniture can brighten up the workplace and promote safety at the same time.
Our collection of social distancing office cubicles give your team some much-needed personal space and a sense of safety with higher partitions. If some of your team works from home and the rest come in, treat your on-site crew to some more elbow room and creature comforts with brand new workstations. If you realize some of your current furniture is hard to clean and disinfect, replace it with easy-to-clean acrylic partitions and plastic, metal or leather desk and reception chairs.
Ready to transform your office and make it ready for your big comeback? Contact us to request your project quote and begin your hunt for the perfect furniture.
Alissa has over 25 years of experience in the office furniture industry. For many of those years, Alissa was a Senior Interior Designer. She then took her love of design and working with customers to the sales realm and has been dedicating her knowledge there ever since. Learn more about Alissa!