When the COVID-19 virus started making headlines at the start of 2020, American observers watched as the disease spread beyond the borders of China and started impacting specific regions of the United States. As the numbers of domestic infections continued to grow, some organizations started talking about closing their offices and asking staff to work remotely.
Almost overnight, virtually the entire country was experiencing some level of infection, and companies from coast to coast were sending staff home. What many expected to be a temporary precaution that would last a week or 2 continues in force, with no immediate end in sight and companies expecting to continue remote work at least through the rest of the year, if not longer.
Uncertainty Leads to Critical Questions
The uncertainty around the duration of remote work begs the question: What factors are companies looking at when determining whether —and when—to bring staff back to the office? Does that decision require the virus to be completely under control or simply manageable from an internal standpoint through social distancing and hygienic precautions? What role do employee and customer views have in the decision? What about federal, state, and local regulations?
We reached out to business owners, HR professionals, and other experts to help answer these questions and provide that feedback, along with our own insights, in this feature.
The Virus Itself
The most obvious factor impacting decisions on whether and when to bring staff back to the office is the level of threat from COVID-19. If tomorrow the virus suddenly disappeared, or the entire nation were vaccinated, the calculus becomes much simpler for employers.
Instead, a recent summary of the virus’s spread in the United States published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reads: “Nationally, since mid-July, there has been an overall decreasing trend in the percentage of specimens testing positive for SARS-CoV-2 and a decreasing or stable (change of ≤0.1%) trend in the percentage of visits for ILI and CLI; however, there has been some regional variation.” In other words, the virus isn’t going anywhere on its own. And the vaccine? That isn’t expected to be widely available until mid-2021.
All things being equal, most employers may not care all that much whether staff work in the office or from home. The challenge is knowing whether all things are truly equal, particularly productivity.
While some companies feel like they haven’t missed a beat, many are seeing signs of reduced productivity and engagement. The sooner they can get staff back to a more productive setting, the better for their bottom lines.
Some staff have been remote for years—even their entire careers—while others never expected to be able to work from home at all, let alone for months on end. Employees have a wide range of preferences when it comes to their experience working from home.
Some love the greater flexibility, and some can’t wait to get back to a more structured environment and see their colleagues face-to-face. Others would prefer a hybrid solution, working from home a few days a week. Many employers are soliciting feedback from staff and using that input to influence their reopening plans.
COVID-19 has struck different parts of the country with varying levels of severity and varying rates of transmission. For example, in the early stages of the pandemic, while parts of the West and East Coasts were facing alarming rates of transmission, much of rural America hadn’t had a single case.
As a result, state and local governments have taken a wide range of approaches to regulating business and social interaction in response to local conditions, and businesses need to be aware of the legal and regulatory risks associated with reopening.
This is particularly true of companies with offices in multiple jurisdictions. These requirements impact not only potential legal and regulatory liability but also the perceptions and attitudes of staff being asked to return to work.
“Companies that have made the decision to require employees to return to the workplace, at least for part of the workweek, have had mixed results,” says Felicia Ennis, Partner at New York law firm Warshaw Burstein, LLP, which specializes in commercial and employment litigation.
“In regions such as the New York metropolitan area, employees continue to express anxiety and concerns about commuting on public transportation, childcare and health issues,” Ennis says. “Some companies that have tried to force workers back to the office have experienced backlash from employees concerned about unsafe work conditions.”
Ennis adds that companies that have failed to properly adopt and/or implement return-to-work plans consistent with state and local guidelines or publish comprehensive plans to educate employees about workplace safety have faced the most resistance.
Ability to Revamp Workplace
“We have researched many options to increase our employees’ comfort level when they return to work,” says Melodie Bond-Hillman, PhD, Director of HR and administration for XYPRO Technology Corporation, a cybersecurity solutions company.
“We have installed plexiglass partitions in open concept work areas. Directional stickers on the floor will be used to control traffic flow. Communal areas, kitchen and break areas have plexiglass dividers that provide another layer of comfort and protection,” Bond-Hillman adds. “Our air filtration has been upgraded and care has been taken to increase housekeeping and sanitation efforts with sanitization stations with touchless hand sanitizers.”
Physical changes in the workplace are just part of the equation. Companies are also looking at how they can create a safer workplace by developing, implementing, and enforcing policies and procedures to promote health and safety.
“Companies that have demonstrated a commitment to health and safety have experienced greater success [with returning staff to the office],” Ennis says. “These companies have not only enacted comprehensive return to work plans that place the employees’ safety as a priority but have clearly communicated these plans to employees. They have also adopted flexible work plans and accommodations for workers with underlying health or childcare issues.”
While many companies are eager to get back to “business as usual” or at least something relatively close to life before COVID-19, nothing about the virus or the available tools to mitigate its impact suggests that a return to normal is likely any time soon.
And unlike the sudden shift to shuttering offices and restaurants, the reopening promises to be slow, gradual, and piecemeal. Employers across the country and around the world have a number of factors to consider when making their individual decisions on when to bring staff back into the office.
What considerations are driving your decisions, and actions, related to bringing employees back to the physical workplace?