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Business Resiliency

How to Prioritize Safety When Returning to the Office

As businesses determine when to reopen workplaces, it’s important to develop and communicate new protocols and evaluate remote work options.


As businesses determine when to reopen workplaces, it’s important to develop and communicate new protocols and evaluate remote work options.

It has been roughly a year since COVID-19 caused many U.S. businesses to adopt some form of remote work. Organizations have adapted, but this new reality is lasting longer than most executives and employees anticipated. And after months of juggling virtual meetings while caring for families and supporting online learning, some employees may be experiencing remote work fatigue.

Executive leaders continue to wrestle with when and how to bring employees back to the workplace* and how remote work fits into their future. These decisions are unique to every organization and require thoughtful planning and strategy. 

Considerations for Returning to the Office

Before your employees return to the office, you’ll need to consider any local or state restrictions that remain in place. These limits may take precedence over your organization’s ability to fully reopen, depending on where you do business or where your employees reside. Local or state restrictions prevail over the latest recommended guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Local and state vaccine immunization procedures may also impact reopening plans.

Any return to the workplace strategy should develop, implement and maintain the following principles.

Prepare the Physical Workplace

“The workplace should be different on day one in three ways: space, simplicity and sanitation,” said Ken Litton, Head of Corporate and Site Services for JPMorgan Chase.

You will have different capabilities for preparing the workplace depending on whether you own or rent your building. If you rent, work with your landlord or property manager to learn about security practices around building entryways, exits and common areas, such as cafeterias. 

To upgrade sanitation, think about how often different areas of the workplace—desks, elevators, public bathrooms, kitchens and break rooms—will need to be cleaned and disinfected.* The CDC advises that you frequently disinfect high-touch objects and surfaces. You can also eliminate some of these spots. For example, investing in a touchless automatic door could reduce cleaning of entryways.

Maintain Social Distancing

Social distancing is critical to minimizing the risk of spreading COVID-19. To help ensure employees maintain social distancing, you can:

  • Limit the number of people using conference rooms at one time and avoid food and beverage service in meetings. While it may seem counterintuitive, encourage employees to join meetings from their desk instead of gathering in meeting rooms.
  • Provide visual cues, such as 6-foot markers throughout the workplace, including outside of elevators, inside cafeterias, security or registration areas and other places where lines form.
  • Create wider aisles or restrict the direction of travel in work areas to maintain at least 6 feet of distance from others.
  • Add protective barriers between desks and use washable desk covers.
  • Implement entrance and exit protocols for elevators and stairs. For example, limit the number of riders on each elevator and designate one stairwell for employees to walk up and another to walk down.
  • Stagger shifts to help reduce the number of employees and customers entering your building simultaneously. This can cut down on congestion in the lobby and limit wait times.
  • Ask a small percentage of your employees to return to the workplace first—these could be critical staff or others who benefit most from being on-site. Once a small group has successfully integrated into the space and adjusted to new policies, you can gradually add more employees as space allows. This gradual rollout helps test the measures you’ve put in place, and limits potential exposure to the virus. Monitor infection rates in the office, as well as in the city and state, before bringing more employees back to the workplace. 

Prioritize Employee and Customer Health

It will be important to follow your local and state government guidelines for vaccine immunization protocols. Prioritizing the protection of your workforce and any visitors from COVID-19 should also include these steps:

  • Reduce density. Aside from staggering shifts, you can split on-site employees into different groups and alternate the days they are in the workplace. For example, an A-group may be on-site for one week, then a B-group may be on-site the following week. Cleanings may occur in between changing shifts, especially if employees share workstations.
  • Improve office hygiene. Make sure you have soap, water and hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, plus tissues and no-touch trash cans, according to the CDC.* You should also display signage prominently to remind employees of workplace health protocols and best practices. Make sure that wipes are available to sanitize high-touch surfaces, such as printer control panels, kitchen appliances and vending machines. Keep extra masks on hand in case an employee or visitor doesn’t bring their own to the office.
  • Establish personal protective equipment protocols. The CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings.* Many organizations are adopting a requirement to wear face coverings except when employees are seated in their workspace.
  • Increase air circulation. Because COVID-19 spreads through an infected person’s respiratory droplets, increased air circulation is important in the workplace. You can contact your heating, ventilation and air conditioning company for information on cleaning, maintenance or air filter installation.
  • Raise awareness of safety practices. Emails and alerts can give employees information about changes and new protocols and direct them to workplace safety tutorials.
  • Screen employees for symptoms. Prior to entering the workplace, you can offer temperature checks on-site. You can also request that employees self- report any symptoms via email or app, where they could also provide their availability and sign up for shifts. Apply the same standards to your vendors or customers coming on-site.
  • Encourage sick employees to stay home. This cannot be emphasized enough. The CDC advises employees with symptoms to notify their supervisor and stay home. Sick employees should isolate at home until they meet CDC criteria and consult with a healthcare provider. Even if they feel well, employees with an affected family member at home should take precautions and notify their supervisor.* 
  • Devise a response plan for sick employees. The CDC advises businesses to immediately separate employees suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19 from others in the workplace. Familiarize yourself with the CDC’s cleaning guidelines, which vary based on how recently the infected employee was on-site. Contact trace to determine which employees may have been exposed to the virus and send them home for 14 days after their last exposure to self-monitor for symptoms; the quarantine period may be shortened to 7 or 10 days, based on certain conditions. Potentially exposed employees may need to follow additional precautions, depending on the workplace. 

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Maintain regular communications with your employees, whether via email, periodic meetings or a company intranet site. Employees are likely to have questions and feedback. Use these communication opportunities to reinforce trust in the company, gauge employee sentiment and revise protocols as necessary.

Communicating with clients and visitors coming to your office is also crucial. “Make sure to communicate visitor expectations before they arrive,” said Nick Donohue, Head of Business Continuity for JPMorgan Chase. For example, when employees invite visitors to meetings, they can include a reminder to wear a mask and arrive 15 minutes early for a temperature and symptom check. The building’s lobby and other areas should feature signs that clearly state visitor requirements and protocols.

Rethink Remote Working

COVID-19 has reshaped the workforce business model, and many organizations are re-thinking how remote work fits in. Employee surveys show that many office workers would prefer a partially remote schedule. While not every role can be performed off-site, offering flexible work arrangements may be beneficial to both your organization and employees.

Consider a hybrid approach where employees still routinely come into an office on a rotating basis. For example, one group of employees may come into the office on Mondays and Tuesdays, while the second group works on-site Thursdays and Fridays. This allows employees to reconsider how they use their time and can spur more purposeful engagement through team meetings, learning sessions and topics that benefit from in-person collaboration. This may, in turn, lead to reconfiguring the workspace to safely accommodate more collaborative work.

However, not all roles and industries are suitable for remote work. It’s still important to consider whether employees truly need to be on-site full time to perform their duties. Many employees prefer to work from home and can be just as productive as they are in the office. If this is the case at your company, keeping employees at home may make more sense than bringing them into the workplace.

And should you choose to keep employees at home, you can expand your talent pool. For example, remote positions may open new geographic areas of recruitment. Working parents and employees with long commutes may also find fully or partially remote roles more appealing, since they don’t need to travel to the office five days a week. Remote work policies also help keep your operations resilient, as employees can connect and remain productive from home if the office is impacted by a natural disaster or other issues.

There are downsides to remote work, too. Employees may have more difficulty maintaining work-life balance if their home and office are one and the same. Plus, there are added challenges to onboarding and supervising employees and maintaining company and office culture. 

When some employees are working from home and others are on-site, aim to keep both groups’ work experiences the same or as similar as possible. For example, conduct video meetings that include members from both groups. You should maintain regular employee check-ins with managers so remote employees don’t miss out on face time with co-workers and business leaders.

Lead by Example

Business leaders play a particularly critical role during this time. They provide employees with guidance and assurance about the return-to-work process. That’s why it’s so important for C-suite executives and midlevel managers alike to remain visible by returning to the office early. They should also model safety protocols, such as wearing face masks and practicing social distancing. 

The Future Workplace

“People are eager to get back to whatever the new normal is going to be,” Donohue said. 

Many of the changes in our workplaces have become the norm outside of work, too, so employees will likely expect to see certain precautions and should be ready to follow them when they return to the office.

*Content sourced from the CDC is available on the agency website for no charge.

References to the CDC ATSDR or HHS websites do not imply endorsement by CDC, ATSDR, HHS or the United States Government of JPMorgan Chase & Co.

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