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Communities across the country are in the process of lifting restrictions imposed due to COVID-19. The majority of these initial reopening phases have focused on how service-oriented businesses (such as restaurants, salons, and recreation centers that include more person-to-person contact) will be operating. However, for white-collar workers that have largely been able to perform job tasks remotely, companies have been less eager to get back into their office space. In fact, some plan to keep employees remote for the foreseeable future.
Still, as these reopenings progress, more businesses are setting up new health and safety protocols for their office spaces. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recently released their guidelines for what returning to the office should look like in a post-COVID world. Recommendations range from simple, such as requiring face masks and encouraging good hygiene practices, to more complex, such as altering or enhancing ventilation systems.
The guidelines begin before employees even reach the office. Previously, carpooling or public transportation was encouraged to decrease costs and environmental impact. However, it is now recommended that workers commute separately. Of course, this is unrealistic for those who do not have access to their own vehicle, or within large, densely-populated urban centers. Those that rely on public transportation should change their work schedules to avoid peak use times during rush hour, and employers should accommodate for these changes.
Modified work schedules should also be used to keep building capacity low; employers should stagger workers’ schedules to start and end at different shifts. For clients or visitors, information should be made clearly visible about how, where, and when to enter and exit the building. This may involve visitors having to wait outside first or schedule ahead, to control the amount of traffic moving through the building at a given time.
In addition to regular disinfecting of high-touch surfaces, like doorknobs and workstations, the CDC suggests some more complicated measures when it comes to building cleanliness. This includes improving ventilation by modifying HVAC systems to include more outdoor air, optimizing exhaust fans in areas such as restrooms, and adding air filtration systems. Of course, it may not be possible for all building spaces to make these adjustments. Instead, keeping windows and doors open for fresh air may be the more reasonable option; this, too, is dependent on the outdoor air being contaminant-free as well as open windows and doors not posing any safety issues for a particular operation.
Office furniture should be reconfigured to allow for at least six feet or more between employees. Again, this guideline may be unrealistic for a current workspace; in this case, the CDC recommends plastic shields between workers.
Guidelines’ Success Relies On Employee Compliance
Aside from some of the logistical and practical issues that some of these guidelines introduce, most of these recommendations rely on employee compliance in order to be effective. For example, the CDC encourages monitoring of employee health with temperature checks and symptom reviews. However, this may not be effective if an employee isn’t honest about how they’re feeling. Employees may also not want to inform supervisors if they have been in contact with someone who is ill, or they may not follow CDC self-isolation protocols if they do get sick.
While it is easy to see if an employee is wearing a recommended face mask, it may be hard to know whether or not workers are maintaining proper distancing and refraining from handshakes throughout the day. Putting up signs about proper hygiene practices—with information about effective hand washing or reminders to reduce physical contact—may simply be ignored.
Furthermore, employees may be disappointed by some of the changes to their office set-up. Coffee stations, snack bins, and other communal items should be removed, but many consider these perks to be a crucial part of their office culture.
Reopening Offices vs. Remote Work
Likely, many other factors will inform whether or not an employer wants to rush back into on-site work. For small companies with larger spaces, it may be simple to reconfigure the physical space to meet more of these guidelines. If a business is in a larger building with several tenants, the logistics of maintaining social distancing or keeping up with employee health may seem too impractical. Landlords may also be implementing stricter measures that could make employees and employers alike unwilling to return right away. Remote work may be easier than attempting these changes initially.
Businesses will want to be understanding when it comes to how their employees feel about returning to work, especially since most of these guidelines complicate the way they perform their jobs. If employees don’t want to return, they risk losing staff or causing anxiety. On the other hand, employees that don’t value the new protocols may not be complying enough to make them worthwhile. Some may be disappointed and feel their benefits are being compromised; if on-site benefits have been severely reduced, employers should look to virtual or other options to fill the gap.
Employers should weigh all of these factors against the pros and cons of continued remote work before making any changes. Above all, communicating new rules and expectations will be key.