Take the fear out of your office return
Our lives have been flipped upside down. We, by and large, have adjusted to staying at home. That may have been the easy part. As states and cities begin to reopen comes the hard part, and there is no bigger challenge than returning to the office. The office is one of the least well-designed places for social distancing. In fact, most workplaces were specifically designed to encourage social interactions. Now everyone is being told to keep their distance as much as possible. In this type of environment, how do we go back to the workplace? What changes must be put in place to enhance productivity and creativity but still keep people safe?
So when is it safe to return to the office? The answer is entirely dependent on how you plan to reopen the office. It’s up to you to define a Reopening Plan that makes it possible to reopen the office safely for your team, so every employee feels confident and comfortable in returning to work.
Where I work at cove, we support thousands of people in companies across our workspaces and technology. We’ve created this living and dynamic guide for your company’s Reopening Plan based on talking to our clients & members, digging into every health guideline and suggestion out there, and tapping into our years of experience designing and operating workspaces. We cover every aspect of coming up with your plan, step by step, so you can feel confident and prepared to reopen the office.
The good news is that with a well-planned and collaborative approach, we can return to a safe and productive working environment. The next six months are as much about ensuring employees feel comfortable and safe about their return as it is about following evolving and still vague federal, state, and local guidelines.
As you go through this, please reach out directly (email@example.com) to share your experiences, concerns, and questions. If there is anything you would like to share with other organizations facing the same challenges, do send those along as well. We will regularly update this document with our stories at cove, your stories and new guidance.
Your new workday — creating a Reopening Plan
Having a Reopening Plan is critical before any office return. The right plan will paint a clear picture of what it means to return to the office, answering key questions with data and new policies, but also highlighting the ways you, as an employer, are keeping everyone productive, engaged, and happy. It will ease the minds of employees by reducing uncertainty and concern about their safety.
Step 1: Talk to your team
Talk to your employees. Communication is more important now than ever. Getting back into the office is as much about listening to public health guidelines as it is about listening to your employees. Everyone has been thrust into the home and many will be eager to return to the office, while others will want to remain at home for much longer. But what’s next? What’s next involves them. Interviewing your employees does not have to be an exhaustive process — a 5 minute survey will give you invaluable insights into how your team is thinking. Create and send a survey asking simple, key questions:
- How do you commute to the office?
- On a scale of 1–10, how productive are you while working at home?
- On a scale of 1–10, what is your level of interest in returning to the office?
- Are you the primary caregiver for children who are currently not in school?
- If you need to work from the office, explain why (e.g. tools onsite)?
- What makes you most excited about an office return?
- What are your biggest concerns about an office return?
Step 2: Put your plan to paper
To help you create your Reopening Plan, we will walk through the big questions you should consider for your company:
- Why and when should I reopen my office?
- When I do reopen the office, how can I create a safe, comfortable environment for my employees?
Why should I reopen the office?
There are many reasons to reopen the office for your employees. Some of the most common reasons include the desire to get out of the house again, the need to reduce the number of distractions and be able to focus on work, and wanting to collaborate easily with co-workers.
You may not have entirely closed to begin with, if essential work has meant that some employees have needed to continue accessing the office. For the rest of your team, your survey results will inform the level of concern and anxiety about a return to their office — a place historically intended to enable focus, away from the distractions of being at home, and collaborate more easily with teammates.
If I do reopen, when should this happen?
The bigger, more challenging question is: when is it safe to reopen the office? We have seen loose guidelines from federal, state, and local governments outlining conditions for “opening up the country,” such as declining rates of new cases and infections in a city or state, as well as steps to take in each “phase” of a return to work (social distancing, use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), sanitization). While these guidelines seem directionally helpful, they do not give clear guidance on key metrics for reopening decisions and are vague about how to safely reopen.
The answer to a safe office return is entirely dependent on how you plan to reopen the office. Let’s dig in together.
How can I reopen safely?
We will run through key areas that you should consider in your Reopening Plan. As you go through each area, put pen to paper on your company’s stance and plan to address each area — the more details the better!
Supporting High Risk Individuals and Primary Caregivers. The simple reality is those at highest risk should be cautious about a return to the office. High risk categories are defined by the CDC and include, for example, people over the age of 65 and those with preexisting conditions like asthma. We do not recommend issuing blanket statements that define who can and cannot access the office on the basis of age or health conditions. Instead begin a dialogue with all staff, so those that self-identify as high risk or as the primary caregiver to young children will know that your organization will support them, regardless of whether they are in the office or working from home:
- Share CDC guidance with employees about high risk categories and be clear that the company will support those who self-identify as high risk and wish to work from home.
- Create an open channel for employees that self-identify as high risk or have children at home by scheduling 1-on-1s with HR teammates or leadership, to discuss work-from-home arrangements.
- Take a deep and hard look at who needs to be in the office. If people are able to be productive working from home, adding risk by going into the office in the near term could be very unnecessary.
Commute. Those who drive alone in their cars should be safe to commute to work (although the environment will have something to say). On the other hand, shared rides, taxis, and public transit are shared, confined spaces that create new challenges in commuting. For example, in Washington DC (as of the most recent data from the U.S. Census in 2016), nearly 40% of workers used public transit to commute to work. This equates to hundreds of thousands of people filling platforms, trains, and buses. We expect that local governments will provide guidance around reducing surge times via public transit. In the meantime, some simple steps are to:
- Stagger arrivals and departures. Consider telling employees to arrive and depart the office at varying times to avoid needing to commute during peak hours. Staggering arrival times within your own office can also help reduce the amount of people congregating around the elevators and doorways at the same time.
- Hire a chartered bus. Depending on the number of employees, this might be the safest, but expensive, solution in the short term. The bus can ferry employees back and forth to the office throughout the day, getting cleaned regularly. It also has the added benefit of showing your employees how much you care about their health and safety.
- Remote Work for Challenging Commutes: There may be many employees that simply do not have the means to safely get to work on time. For those that can work remotely and who cannot safely commute to work, be clear that you will support their ability to work remotely during this pandemic.
Office design and layout. The modern office has a mix of private spaces (offices), open spaces (open seating), and shared resources (conference rooms, kitchen break rooms). Given current and evolving guidance, physical distancing between employees is of extreme importance. In order to prepare your office for reopening, you can:
- Remove desks to reduce density. Reducing the number of desks will force employees to spread out within the office and maintain a safe distance between each other. Fewer desks with better spacing has several implications: the same desk might be used by two different people on the same day, scheduling becomes more important, and thorough cleaning is essential to creating a safe work environment — more on this in the next few sections.
- Create safe zones. Using what’s available, such as masking tape, mark off spaces around each employee’s workspace as safe zones. These spaces can be clearly identified as being off limits to others to help employees feel comfortable and safe while they work at their desks.
- Remove items from desktops to simplify cleaning. What better excuse to clean your personal space. Encourage employees to leave their desks entirely free of desktop items, such as laptops, peripherals, pictures, etc.
- Close shared spaces. At reopening, consider temporary closures of your shared resources like kitchens, phone booths, and conference rooms. If you can implement rigorous cleaning schedules between meetings, conference rooms will be valuable to your team’s productivity, but feel free to keep things simple and close shared spaces in the first few weeks.
- Reduce touch points. Where possible, remove the need for people to touch common areas, like doors, lights, etc. While replacing manual light switches with automatic ones would be great, even simple things like propping open doors will significantly reduce common touch points that can spread germs. Depending on security needs, you can even remove doors completely.
- Provide tools for safety. Your building should provide some of the essentials, like masks, gloves, and extra cleaning equipment. But give your team what they need to feel safe. Going above and beyond whatever your building offers will go a long way. Add signage to encourage and remind everyone about common health precautions like social distancing and washing hands.
Create clear schedules. A key part of keeping the office safe will be limiting the number of employees onsite at any given time. Especially if you have decided to space desks out, reducing the capacity of your office, you will need to have a clear plan for who can access the office and when. This will require combining employee preferences, floor plans, and objectives to create a clear schedule:
Determine a schedule system. Decide on an approach to scheduling access for employees, so you can limit the number of people onsite at one time, even if there are fewer seats in the office. We suggest choosing one or more of the following options:
- Seat Assignments: Without even rearranging furniture, you can look at assigning seats for specific people who want or need to come into the office. Look at the floor plan and ensure that you are assigning seats that are appropriately spaced from each other.
- Team or Department-based Schedules: For example, depending on your office layout, this could be asking Marketing to come in on Mondays and Wednesdays while Accounting and Finance comes in on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
- Reservations: Leverage a reservation or hoteling system that will enable employees to book desks that are appropriately distanced from each other.
Consider alternative scheduling. Why keep the work week to only Monday through Friday? Or from 9am to 5pm? By expanding the work week and times for work to include Saturdays and Sundays and off hours, you increase the time you can schedule different people to come into the office. Don’t worry, those who come in on a Saturday or Sunday can still take off other days of the week. You can also keep a rotating schedule so that the same employees don’t get stuck coming in on a Saturday or a Sunday.
Publish your office schedule on a weekly basis. Where and when will people be in the office? Sharing this information with your team will help with team coordination and increasing transparency for employees.
Cancel all visitors to the office. Stick to online meetings and calls in the near term.
Create rules of engagement. Even with this new normal, being in the office should not be an impersonal, disconnected experience. Is the office merely a quiet place to work with a desk, or can you add value to everyone’s day that they can’t get at home? How can you bring people together, while accounting for social distancing, to fulfill the sense of community that people need and want?
- Planned breaks. Designate one (or multiple) areas in the office that people can go to take a break, chat, and hang, while still being able to maintain distances between themselves. Break that masking tape back out to clearly delineate safe zones where people can sit or stand and chat and ensure it is cleaned thoroughly before and after use. Come together, finally.
- Contactless designated area for deliveries. Have a designated area for arriving food and packages that is accessible to employees and delivery personnel.
- Encourage people to bring lunch. You will likely want to limit your need to actually leave until the end of the day since going out for lunch will be impractical in the short term.
- Order in lunch for the team. If a company can, this would be a much-appreciated, incredible perk. Be smart about it though and do it in a safe way with delivery to your contactless delivery area.
- Communication. If you don’t already have one, decide upon a channel for giving regular (daily, weekly) updates to your team. Tell stories and provide the human side to the organization. Additionally, in the event of an outbreak at the office, people need to know when the office is open or if other guidance is provided.
- Continue online only meetings. With so many people spread out, trying to differentiate who is where will get complicated. Successful companies that think remote first, especially now, will keep everyone on the same page and differentiate based on accessing the office.
- Support virtual events. Despite the fact that your office is open, many of your employees will likely continue to be remote. Bring everyone together through virtual events, which onsite employees can also join. Zoom Happy Hours, Netflix Parties, Game Nights, and more can help everyone feel connected.
Put the health of your employees and the community first. We all want to go back to the office but rushing to get back to normal is a bad idea. Consider taking extra precautions to ensure both the safety of your employees and the community you are a part of. Put in place larger measures today to avoid regressing tomorrow.
- Ensure those that become ill are taken care of. The most likely reason that an employee will want to come into the office, despite having Coronavirus, is because they fear for their job or they have too much work to do. Make it clear to all that work will be covered by others and no one will be judged negatively for staying home sick.
- Temperature checks. Contactless thermometers are cheap and readily available. Consider grabbing one (or a couple) for the office. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, temperature checks can be required as a return to work. However, do remember that most people will be asymptomatic so forcing everyone to temperature checks is an answer but only part of a solution. Instead, doing daily temperature scans of those in the office will ensure no one feeling under the weather puts the rest at risk. While some employees may balk at this measure, most will appreciate how serious you are taking it.
- Plan if someone becomes infected. Hopefully your entire staff and their families will continue to be safe and healthy but the reality of the situation is that someone in your office may contract Coronavirus. Make sure you discuss a plan internally around what to do if that happens. Current CDC guidance suggests that you close the area for 24 hours before conducting a deep clean. So what is your response? As of now, we suggest closing your office for three days, doing a deep clean, and ensuring anyone who was in a similar area as the infected person stays home for 14 days. Based on current privacy laws, we do not advise identifying a specific person but instead making a blanket announcement to people on that floor. Plan for the worst today so you don’t get caught off-guard.
Step 3: Talking to your office building
Your office building has a big responsibility around communication, cleaning, new signage, and policies to ensure your safe return. I encourage you to share the below with your office building to ensure they have a clear plan.
- These create serious challenges. By design, they are intended for many people in close contact. Based on current distancing guidelines and regular cleaning, elevators can safety fit one person at a time. However, this creates a traffic jam. In the example of a standard 10 story office building with three elevators, your single-person elevator ride could mean hours of wait time during peak periods.
- Encourage use of the stairs for anyone physically able and have cleaning staff add stairwells to cleaning schedules.
- Assign elevator time windows by floor during peak hours. For example, floors 4 and 5 from 8am to 830am, floors 6 and 7 from 8:30am to 9am.
- Assign an elevator conductor to coordinate lines, ensure distancing, and generally provide guidance.
- Ensure elevator buttons are continuously cleaned. Lots of people will be touching these buttons, therefore, they should constantly be wiped down.
- Unlock doors and prop them open.
- Twice daily bathroom cleanings, with signage noting schedule and completed cleanings.
- Reminder signage around washing hands. Placing a pair of eyes on these signs have been shown to increase compliance.
- Signage around distancing and cleaning, noting scheduled and completed cleanings.
- Clear guidelines and response if a building has a case, with a clear plan for closing and cleaning.
- Contact tracing to ensure that the right people are notified and get tested.
Building provided tools and adjustments
- Masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer to ensure safer interactions.
- Wherever possible, prop open or add foot door openers.
- Lobby temperature checks, however this does not account for asymptomatic people, and is only part of any plan.
Masks, public transit, elevators — this all might feel a bit overwhelming. There is no simple solution, but a well-crafted plan will ensure that you are able to safely get back to the office. This does not account for every aspect , but should capture the most important and practical challenges we face. Listen to health experts as well as your employees in creating your Reopening Plan. We don’t yet know when social distancing guidelines will be eased on national and state-wide levels or when modern science will step in. But if this is our reality at least through 2020, having your Plan in place will go a long way in having a productive and safe team.
Lastly, have a little fun. We’re human and we like fun. Surprise lunches, daily emails spotlighting employees, leadership videos, free Netflix — these are the things that people will remember and keep us connected when we need it most.
Helpful resources included above and some added ones:
- CDC: People Who Need to Take Extra Precautions
- CDC: Public Health Recommendations for Community-Related Exposure
- CDC: Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Facility — Everyday Steps, Steps When Someone is Sick, and Considerations for Employers
- CDC: Travel Health Notices
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws
- White House: Opening up America Again
Please reach out directly (firstname.lastname@example.org) to share your experiences, concerns, and questions, or if you want to be notified of changes to the guide. If there is anything you would like to share with other organizations facing the same challenges, do send those along as well. We will regularly update and add to this document with our own stories, your stories and new guidance.