Returning to an office, what can we do?

posted in: COVID-19 | 0

Q:  I own a small professional services firm.  We hope to have a few employees return to work in the office sometime in May, 2020.  Do you have any thoughts on how to do this safely?  What are other employers doing?

A: This pandemic has rattled many businesses, from restaurants to CPA firms.  In general, the employers with less person-to-person contact are faring better.  Although you don’t share specific information about your firm, I am envisioning an office environment, with the ability to implement social distancing practices.  Here is a summary of the advice that we have been sharing with many of our clients.  The sources range from Governor Baker’s office to the CDC.  Also, we are sharing several recommendations that clients have shared with us.

  1. Social distance. We have heard it repeatedly.  Stay at least six feet away from others.  Have one employee work in a conference room.  Have another use a cube at the far end of your office suite.  Avoid sharing office spaces.  One of my clients has conference room tables which are about 12 feet long.  One employee is working at one end, while another is sitting at the other end.
  2. Facial coverings. Whatever you wear seems to help.  These are not a replacement for social distancing but an extra measure of precaution.  Some are wearing them in the office or just went they run to the restroom.  Encourage them.  One of my clients is supplying them, while also supporting a non-profit that is selling them.  Many people feel more comfortable wearing gloves.  Encourage the use of gloves.
  3. Hand sanitizer. Use it often and have it available.  Experts suggest using hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  4. Surface cleaning. Ensure that you are frequently cleaning hard surfaces like photocopiers, keypads, elevator buttons, table tops, door knobs and refrigerator/microwave handles.  If you have a cleaning company, ask them (and pay them extra if possible) to spend more time cleaning hard surfaces.  Have alcohol-based wipes available or paper towels with a spray cleaner available.  Discourage the shared used of phones, laptops and keyboards.
  5. Office hygiene. Empty wastebaskets daily, especially those with used tissues or paper towels.  No communal food in the lunch room and no eating at the same table (if it is a round table that seats four).  Avoid ordering a pizza and sharing.  Don’t bring in muffins or donuts unless they are individually wrapped.
  6. Staggered work hours. I have some clients limiting the number of employees who can access the office at one time.  Some are working early mornings.  Some are working evenings or afternoons, while others are working the weekend.  This also enables someone to take in packages or mail on a regular basis.  The upside of staggered work hours is that can also help balance childcare responsibilities.
  7. Ask for packages to be dropped outside your door.  Lock your door so guests, visitors or others are not wandering in.
  8. No martyrs. If someone is sick, don’t send signals that the best employees physically “show up” at work.  Sick employees should stay home and monitor their health.  If the employee suspects they may have COVID-19, the employee should contact their health care provider.
  9. Use Zoom or other video conferencing tools. Minimize the gathering of people when possible.
  10. Some employers are requesting that employees take their temperatures before walking into an office. This is now acceptable.  However, symptoms vary.  This is a sneaky virus.  Many employees will have a temperature if they are COVID-19 positive but some will not.  Additionally, there are mixed reports that those who have recovered from COVID-19 are immune.  I would not rely solely on a high temperature.

Lastly, ask your employees for their thoughts and input.  Employees may have suggestions that you and I would have never offered.  And be gentle.  Some employees will be more anxious than normal, yet others may be eager to return to the office.  If you have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), this might be a good time to promote it.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.

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