Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of uncertainty in terms of how and when organizations will return to “business as usual.” While some offices in the United States continue to remain closed, others have begun to cautiously reopen as states and municipalities ease restrictions.
For those organizations currently weighing a full or partial return to the office, there are several considerations to help mitigate risk:
1. Have a Fully Developed Return-to-Office Plan in Place
Having clearly defined return-to-office parameters, including protocols aimed at reducing the risk of spreading infection, is essential. Remember that exposure risk is not limited to just employees but rather extends to anyone they come into contact with, including family, friends, and business associates.
Our firm, BIP Capital, is sharing its own return-to-office plan to help other organizations develop their own strategies for returning their employees to the office in as safe a manner as possible. The plan complies with federal and other guidelines for reopening, including, but not limited to, those issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
While there is no cookie-cutter blueprint that will work for all organizations, it is our belief the plan could serve as a starting point for others to create their own return-to-office strategy. Additionally, for employers that are seeking to resume normal or phased business operations, the CDC’s Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers is another useful resource.
For those responsible for determining a return-to-office policy, be aware that established protocols may have to evolve as more becomes known about the virus. For example, mandatory mask requirements are still being debated, as is the optimal number of feet for social distancing, as some information suggests contaminated droplets can travel beyond the 6-feet recommendation.
2. Acknowledge That Risk Perception Is Different for Each Person
Even when an organization makes the decision to reopen the office, whenever possible, worker compliance should be voluntary. It is key to remember that each person’s perception of risk is different and that there are varying levels of anxiety around return-to-office scenarios. Not to mention, some workers may legitimately be at higher risk, such as those with chronic health conditions and older workers.
BIP Capital’s return-to-office plan comprises three phases:
- Phase 1: Highly restricted office access, with an opportunity for voluntary return for employees (Telework will still be preferred and encouraged during this phase.)
- Phase 2: Moderately restricted office access, with voluntary return for employees (Telework will still be available and, in many cases, still preferred and encouraged.)
- Phase 3: Less restrictive operations (This phase may only be entered when there is significantly reduced risk of disease contraction and may still include telework.)
While the ideal plan would outline a voluntary return by those workers with acceptable risk-tolerance levels and who are willing to follow mandated safety rules, we realize this model works best in cases when the majority of work can be conducted remotely. Organizations that require the physical presence of workers, such as those in health care or public safety, do not have this same level of flexibility.
3. Be Prepared for a Potential Exposure
At the time of this writing, there are more than 5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States, and that number is growing every day. (For the CDC’s latest data, go here.) It seems that until a vaccine is available and widely administered, the coronavirus will continue to be a health risk, even when the risk is mitigated.
As such, it is inevitable that some reopened offices will experience a COVID-19 exposure. This is why it is also critical to have a communications strategy ready in advance of such an event. Communications that should be prepared and in place include:
- Notification of impacted staff and others who may have been exposed. This should be a statement of the facts and should provide information on what the organization is doing in response, as well as what impacted parties should do. However, you must keep the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in mind when disclosing information. According to the ADA, the employer can tell employees that they may have been exposed, but they can’t disclose the name of the employee who has COVID-19.
- Statements for the public at large about the potential exposure. This may or may not be required based on your organization’s profile and the breadth of the exposure.
- Continuation-of-business information for customers to provide the facts and let them know they will be served by remote staff.
As part of this, an official spokesperson should be identified inside your organization, and employees should be briefed on protocols for handling possible inquiries, such as from the media. News travels fast and can create undue fear or confusion. In the event of an exposure or even a potential exposure, having a structured communications strategy in place quickens response time and can help limit misinformation.
It is up to each organization to determine whether and when it will return employees to the workplace and, if so, the best way to go about it. Being fully prepared with a well-thought-out return-to-office plan and crisis communications strategy can help organizations navigate the remainder of the pandemic.
Mark Buffington is cofounder and CEO and Mark Flickinger is COO of BIP Capital, an Atlanta-headquartered venture capital firm that partners with entrepreneurs and innovative companies, providing both operational and strategic direction. Follow BIP Capital on Twitter and LinkedIn.