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June 11, 2020

Thoughts and Guidance on Workplace Reopenings

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It’s safe to say that none of us expected the year 2020 to roll out the way that it has. The COVID-19 pandemic has altered life as we know it not only in the U.S., but across the world. Like most things in life, the pandemic’s effects are multifaceted and intersectional. How much of it can be restored – and when – remains unknown.

Business owners and industry leaders have been left to contend with difficult choices amid a mountain of seemingly countless variables. When the pandemic swept across the world, virtually all workers deemed non-essential suddenly found themselves either doing their job remotely or not at all. Knowing how to begin picking up the pieces of a broken workforce and economy while the virus itself continues to spread is anything but obvious. In an effort to offer a streamlined, thorough, and safe approach for companies in our network, we’ve created a guide we hope helps.

To write this guide, we dove into the most up-to-date data and science-based recommendations as well as common reopening practices across multiple industries and locations. While nothing can be exhaustive in an ever-changing crisis of this scale, we hope this effort will not only lessen the burden on employers to figure it all out on their own, but yield smart reopening strategies that might support businesses and save lives.

Our guide includes information about what we know right now and it also addresses what we do not yet know. We offer tips as well as ideas on how to best move forward. In some respects, we may never fully return to the way things were before the pandemic. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. With this reopening roadmap in hand, we aim to equip and inspire you to press on with hope, courage, and resilience.

The guide is split into two parts – what we do know and what we don’t. Here are ways you can take action based on what we do know:

  • Build an internal COVID task force. We know that workplaces should develop their own internal task forces. This is a team charged with creating, managing, and enforcing COVID-related policies. An empathetic approach is paramount. From open and constructive discussions on how and when to bring employees back to the workplace to liability reviews, the task force should center their efforts on compassion and understanding. All employees face unique challenges with this pandemic and their ability to return to a physical workplace. Focusing on that fact first and foremost will create a smoother reopening effort.
  • Prepare the physical workplace.  This is no small feat, but it is one that cannot be glossed over or sped through. The ideas covered in this guide touch on seating, desks, communal and other high-risk areas, entries and exits, upgrades and signs to consider, and the availability and disposal of PPE. It is not enough to simply bring employees back through the door – every aspect of their in-person surroundings needs to be addressed for sanitation amid a pandemic.
  • Carefully transition employees back to work. This can’t be done with a one-size-fits-all approach. The shift requires nuance. One of the most important metrics employers have at their disposal here is good old fashioned feedback. Since working from home is still the safest solution, managers should be asked about their experiences with it thus far. What’s working? What isn’t working? Can it continue? Employees should also be polled on these kinds of questions as well as their comfort level with returning to a physical work location. Providing a way for workers to give feedback anonymously will also prove to be helpful. After all: a true reflection of how team members feel is the goal here. Names don’t have to be attached to those feelings. As a part of the transition, companies should remain flexible. Those who volunteer to return to a physical work site should be the first ones brought back and liability issues are just one small reason why.
  • Be flexible with the “hows” and “whens” of on-site work. Once some employees are back on location, schedules and attendance should not be expected to spring back to what they once were. Staggered shifts, alternating days, and off-peak work should all be a part of the approach. But before the first employee returns to their desk, the company task force should have training ready to launch for that first day back. The training should address all of the changes and protections. It should welcome questions and an open dialogue. In addition to training on Day 1, welcome back kits are one of our suggestions. These kits might include hand sanitizer, gloves, masks, personalized notes, toys, treats, and pick-me-ups of any kind that might boost morale and show employees that they really are seen and appreciated.
  • Include policies on person-to-person interactions. In-person meetings as well as casual discussions should have some basic and established bounds. Employers should also develop a plan for interactions that might take place with visitors. Onboarding new hires, whether they will work remotely or on-site, is likely to look a little different than it did before. Policies should be developed by the task force as well as a plan for enforcing those policies.
  • Have a sanitation plan. Cleaning will prove to be an important part of stabilizing the physical workplace. Plans on how to best work with cleaning staff, implement new employee-driven cleaning practices, and keep track of all sanitation efforts should be a part of the larger conversation. Other company policies – like travel or included meals – will likely need to be addressed and updated to reflect this new reality.

Now, ways to take action based on what we don’t know:

  • Remain up-to-date on regulatory protocols. We don’t yet know what the regulations from various agencies and local and state governments might be at the time of reopening. The messaging can sometimes seem chaotic and that is because there is so much we still are figuring out. Employers should keep a constant watch on rules that might apply to their business. And, in line with that, we don’t yet know how liability issues will shake out. We strongly urge every company to work hand-in-hand with its legal team when constructing and conveying new measures. One thing we can be certain will be a part of liability discussions, however, is testing.
  • Plan for testing and other safety measures. Regular COVID testing, antibody testing, and temperature checks should be at the forefront of this discussion. Vaccines will hopefully be a part of the solution as soon as possible, but companies should begin working out their stance on vaccination now as the topic isn’t always straightforward. Any given company might have workers who do not want or cannot be vaccinated for one reason or another and companies should plan ahead for this. These unknowns that companies will want to start thinking about also include issues like childcare and transportation. What will the policies be like for those with children if their child care remains impacted by the pandemic? What about those who rely on public transportation?

There is no precedent for positioning a modern company to reopen amid a pandemic. All we can do is research, lean on science, learn from other leaders, and actively listen to our employees – from the executives to facilities to contractors and everyone in between. In a time of such uncertainty, you may feel daunted by the prospect of reopening your physical space. It’s a natural response to all of this upheaval. We urge companies to not speed this process, but to instead approach it deliberately, with concentrated intention.

This crisis offers an opportunity to hone compassion and communication. It can help brands to connect with their supporters in a way that’s more authentic and human than ever before. It can cultivate resilience and ingenuity. We hope this guide can help get you started and on the path back to a safe, healthy, collaborative workplace.

Below are links to the COVID-19 checklist and COVID-19 handbook outline that we sent to our portfolio companies. The documents cover key considerations that businesses should take into account when formulating a plan for employees’ return to the office. Also included is a link to a handout developed by our law firm, Cooley, LLP, which encourages businesses to review their insurance policies in light of potential COVID-related lawsuits.

Other relevant  information can be found in the additional articles below: