We are all dreaming about getting back to normal but the life we knew before March 2020 will never be the same. It wasn’t easy quickly transitioning our teams to work at home and it will take much longer and much more detailed planning to get them back to the office.
In order to ensure the safe and healthy return to work, most businesses will need to make substantial changes to their space, work and meeting practices, employee remote work policies and even client interactions.
I recommend that you develop a plan to prepare for the eventual transition back to your offices and offsite work locations as well as long-term issues that will require your ongoing attention and periodic adjustment. Your plan should consider how to adapt changing work protocols, workspace requirements, client needs, employee constraints and concerns as well as Federal, state and local government regulations, recommendations and restrictions.
It will be important to establish an expectation that plans will be flexible and policies will most likely change frequently as internal and outside factors make them obsolete or more restrictive.
The following are items for consideration as you start to build your plan. I have divided these up into 4 categories; Employees, Healthy Offices, Clients and Projects, and Government Compliance / Risk Management.
- I recommend you survey your employees to discover their fears, concerns and desires as it relates to their health, coming back to the office and how they feel about their productivity working at home versus at the office. Most of my clients that have done these types of surveys have found that about 50% of their employees do not want to return to the office full time or at all.
- Do your research before trying to develop a plan. You might find you have different scenarios, preferences and regulations in different offices or parts of the country. As recommended above, conduct an employee survey to understand the needs, fears and constraints that face your employees coming back to work.
- Divide your employees into categories depending on their risk factors and preferences. Be careful about crossing privacy boundaries and complying with HIPAA rules. Consider creating different policies based on employees’ (and their family) health factors, living conditions, child-care needs, age, previous exposure to COVID-19 and desire to work at home versus the office. Many workers may be afraid to come to the office for a while. Others may be afraid to take public transportation or go to an office if they have elderly parents at home. Still others may live with a healthcare worker that could be exposed to COVID-19 and be a risk for your other staff.
- Based on your research, you may need to form a separate return to work policy for each category of workers. These policies should be considered preliminary as conditions are changing rapidly and any policy or process you create may need to change several times. At a minimum, you may have several categories of workers – those that may never return to the office, those that come in occasionally, those that work at home several days a week, and those that come back full time. You may also have to factor in quarantine practices for screening workers who may have had exposure or are living with someone who is sick or been exposed. Some employers are considering split shifts to promote social distancing where employees work in the office specific days of the week and at home others. Consider computer and supply needs as some workers may need desktop computers and require a designated place to work.
- The plan should include designating company HR professionals who are responsible for implementing and monitoring the status of your staff. These professionals should monitor federal guidelines and insurance considerations that may apply to the various employee groups such as Sick Leave and PTO policies, Short term disability, Worker’s Comp, ADA, OSHA, FMLA and the new FFCRA (see below).
- Determine what kinds of testing will be needed and availability of such tests to consider bringing employees back to the office. Testing may include daily temperature checks and COVID-19 testing for infection or anti-bodies. You may need to survey employees about how they feel about this kind of testing and those that do not approve of being tested may have to work at home indefinitely.
- Processes will be needed to quickly identify and isolate sick people including workers with sick family members. You may need to establish protocols and training for employees to self-monitor their health. If an employee does end up reporting that they have symptoms or are infected, you may need a protocol for contact tracing to determine if they may have infected other employees in the office or people outside the company if they have been to other locations or work sites.
- For those that will work at home full-time or part-time permanently, you may need to develop more detailed and stringent work-at-home policies. Check out this resource – Emergency Work-at-Home Policy Recommendations for considerations on developing effective remote workforce policies. Consider special policies for 100% home-based employees that are going to occasionally visit your offices.
- Some employees may be concerned about how working at home will affect their long-term career growth and this should be factored into career development training and performance management practices in the future.
- Make sure your insurance policies cover work-at-home liabilities and employee-owned equipment. Ensure employees understand your internal cyber security processes to reduce risk from employee-owned equipment, phones and home networks. Educate them about COVID-19 related phishing scams. Also, I recommend you purchase cyber security insurance policies that cover cyber-attacks and ransomware for employees working at home.
- Develop protocols for employees that will work together in an office (see healthy office considerations below). This may include social distancing, wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), hand washing, elimination of personal items at workspaces to enhance cleaning efforts, limitations on internal and external meetings and sizes of groups, and other behaviors designed to promote healthy offices. Consider employee commuting practices including car-pools and use of public transport and how it could affect employee risk factors.
- Ensure you have a strategy for acquisition of any PPE, hand sanitizer and wipes, thermometers, testing or supplies you will need to implement these new protocols. Limitations on many of these items may prevent implementation of any re-occupancy plan until supply chains are restored.
- Non-essential work travel should be cancelled until the virus is under control. For essential work travel, ensure proper travel protocols are established and implemented.
- Plan how you will roll-out your new policies and processes and determine how you will educate your staff who work at different offices and at home. Consider what types of communication you will need to produce to keep employees informed and complying with new company protocols.
- Do not ignore the extreme stress and mental toll this pandemic is taking on your team. This could be amplified if someone in their family has been infected or if a family member is on the front lines treating COVID-19 patients. Some mental health resources may be needed for employees that are showing signs of severe anxiety, fear or depression.
- Based on recommended social distancing measures you may need to make changes to your physical office space including installing cubicles, moving work spaces further apart, installing partitions, removing chairs from lobbies and conference areas, and defining main “intersections” of frequent movement in the office. Determine how new protocols will be monitored and enforced.
- Some recommendations are including taking employee temperatures as they enter your offices every day. This is already happening on construction sites across the U.S. To ensure compliance with temperature checking, reduce the number of entrances employees can use into your offices.
- Consider possible changes to air quality requirements including HVAC systems, filtering, circulation, etc.
- New cleaning procedures will be needed including more frequent cleaning and disinfection of workspaces. Personal items and desktop phones may need to be removed to make cleaning easier and enable sharing of spaces.
- Ensure your company is following all recommended processes to mitigate the possibility of spread of infection. CDC Interim guidance is a good start to ensure you are putting in place necessary controls to eliminate possible infections and create policies for employees to follow if they feel they may be sick. The OSHA Guidance for Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 is another important resource. It classifies different types of work sites from low to high risk and prescribes how they should be managed.
- If offices have been vacant for quite a while there may be inspections required to ensure clean air and water and removal of potential mold before occupancy. Plan to reach out to your property managers to understand measures they are implementing to ensure safe occupancy of their tenants. Many property–management companies have developed documents to help employers re-occupy their offices.
- Consider having the majority of meetings virtually unless physical presence is critical such as an inspection or site visit. Limit outside visitors to offices.
- If you currently do not have a health and safety officer, consider designating someone in this role or hiring someone. OSHA offers training courses that might be needed for companies that have employees in many different working situations.
Clients and Projects:
- Many of your clients will be moving back from work-at-home situations to their offices and some may wait longer or continue working at home. They may even have health issues that preclude them from meeting with you or your staff. Ensure you closely monitor the status of clients and create communication policies accordingly. Reaching out to clients frequently to monitor changes and understanding their preferences will go a long way towards ensuring you are meeting their specific needs.
- Advise employees about safe social interactions including eliminating hand-shaking and possible alternatives.
- As described above, include close monitoring of employee health conditions – especially in high-risk types of projects such as healthcare and senior living facilities. Additionally, create protocols to ensure employees identified above as high-risk are not sent into these types of high-risk facilities.
- Maintain an updated status of all construction and work sites. Conditions and regulations have been changing frequently and could continue to change frequently for the ongoing future.
- As local and state governments re-open businesses, your employees may object to working in uncertain situations. To ensure continuity of projects and employee productivity, ensure all project work sites have established protocols and employees are kept informed weekly about the status of transportation, buildings and construction sites.
- Consider a contingency plan for replacing sick workers when needed. Some firms are making arrangements with local competitors to subcontract under-utilized staff on an as-needed basis. This can be a win-win for both companies but ensure that employee non-solicitation clauses are included in agreements.
- Monitor employee workload and utilization daily if possible and ramp up sharing of employees in different groups, teams or offices as needed. Start preparing for projects that have been put on hold that are starting up again.
- Consider future plans for dealing with another wave of the virus and how to quickly mobilize emergency protocols if needed.
- Discuss your plan with clients to understand their organizations’ plans and requirements to ensure your policies and future strategies are in line with theirs.
Government Compliance / Risk Management:
- Create a method to monitor all local, state and federal guidance and regulations that affect your offices and project sites. Determine how to communicate all changes to employees and clients to ensure non-interruption of work.
- Meet with your trusted insurance agents to get their guidance for maintaining healthy work standards, risk mitigation and compliance. Many insurance brokers are releasing their recommendations for managing the changing risk considerations, communication protocols and insurance considerations for dealing with COVID-19.
- Consult your internal or outside counsel to review any written communication to clients and employees.
- Ensure that all policies are in compliance with all local, state, and Federal requirements including the Department of Labor, FEMA, OSHA and CDC. For companies with offices in many locations, consider adopting the most stringent of all requirements as your company-wide policy.
- Consider special legislation as it is enacted and get professional advice from HR professionals, CPAs, legal counsel and others in considering how to enact sick leave and other policies. Be aware of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and how to meet your legal employer requirements from illness from COVID-19 under this act.
As you can see, there are many considerations in developing an effective plan to get your employees back to your offices. For many firms, this will be too much to deal with and they will choose to continue to enable employees to work at home for much longer.
As the work-at-home experience has gone much better than many firm leaders expected, some are even saying they may get rid of some of their office space or smaller out of state offices and have the majority of their workforce stay at home. However, this may not be feasible for some companies that have employees that don’t want to work at home or are not as productive at home.
We are certainly in a new era and with the potential for the virus to come back stronger in the fall, this may be an exercise that businesses will have to go through many times in the next few years.
I recommend you err on the side of simplicity and provide clear guidance to employees that is easily understood by everyone. While these are complex circumstances we all face, having a plan that is easily implemented will ensure the health and safety of your staff and clients.
This is also a time for great compassion for the huge mental toll this is taking on everyone including your employees and their families, clients, vendors and partners. We will all get through this eventually. Continued focus on the well-being of all involved as well as survival of our businesses will be key to our success for the foreseeable future.
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