It's no secret that pandemic fatigue is weighing on all of us. Everyone is eagerly awaiting some degree of normalcy, and for a lot of professionals, that means returning to a legitimate office space. But that transition back will come with a host of challenges, and navigating them won't be easy.
Preparing a workplace for employees' return will be tough, and it's going to involve some serious effort and major boxes to check. To help you get there, we've compiled some data on the points you'll need to address and how to successfully cover them.
Let's jump in.
How to Prepare a Safe Workplace
Check your building to see if it’s ready for occupancy.
There's a good chance your physical office space hasn't been used throughout most of the pandemic, and prolonged facility shutdowns can be problematic from a structural and functional standpoint.
In some cases, long-vacant buildings might be susceptible to potential hazards like mold growth and rodent infestations, so be sure to conduct thorough inspections for those kinds of risks before you consider reopening.
In a similar vein, you'll also need to ensure the safety and soundness of your water systems and features — including sink faucets, drinking fountains, decorative fountains, and ice machines, and cooling towers — to minimize the risk of conditions like Legionnaires' Disease.
You should also check whether your ventilation systems are still working — if your heating and air conditioning systems aren't fully functional, you'll probably need to reconstruct them according to ASHRAE's new standards for commercial HVAC systems.
Identify where and how workers might be exposed to COVID-19 at work.
Another key factor to address when figuring out the logistics of an office reopening is pinning down any points where employees might be exposed to COVID-19. To get there, you'll want to conduct a thorough hazard assessment to identify any work and common areas where employees might have close contact.
That could be spaces like meeting rooms, break rooms, the cafeteria, locker rooms, check-in areas, waiting areas, and routes of entry and exit. You should also establish a clear communication plan with all workers — from management to the janitorial staff. Let them know the standards you've set for every area of potential transmission, and stay abreast of any other locations you might not have considered.
Adjust your office space configuration.
Once you've identified office locations that might lend themselves to easy transmission, you'll need to reevaluate and restructure your general office space configuration.
Consider eliminating reception seating areas. If that doesn't work for you, consider requesting that guests phone ahead, or look into installing plastic partitions at the reception area.
Make sure your seating arrangement is situated so employees don't face one another. You should also encourage the use of virtual meeting tools whenever you can. Use conference rooms as little as possible — keeping any meetings to under ten people, and thoroughly disinfect those spaces after each one.
Take the proper administrative steps to ensure safety.
Adjusting administrative controls is another crucial consideration employers need to bear in mind when preparing for an office reopening. First and foremost, you should consider implementing a mask mandate for anyone entering your facility.
Beyond that, always encourage any employees exhibiting COVID symptoms to stay home — the same goes for anyone who might have been in contact with someone who tests positive.
If an employee appears to have symptoms in the middle of a workday, immediately separate them from their colleagues and send them home. You should also consider conducting daily in-person or virtual health checks — like symptoms or temperature screenings.
Develop policies to prevent group gatherings and consistently maintain six-feet of separation between employees. Try staggering shifts, start-times, and break-times to keep too many employees from gathering in common spaces.
How to Help Teams Transition Back to the Workplace
Open, thorough, and transparent communication will be central to helping your team transition back into the workplace. That means adopting a comprehensive, accessible communication policy that suits your organization.
You need to brief employees on what your company is doing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 — whether that be implementing a disinfection routine, establishing broader health policies, or putting other health and safety measures in place.
From there, you'll have to provide both formal and informal lines of communication for employees to express COVID-related questions, concerns, comments, or feedback.
If a team member needs to raise an issue related to office safety — no matter how small — they need to be able to easily and reliably reach someone who can address what they have to say.
You should also clearly establish your authority to limit office hours or prohibit public access to the office if needed. Your employees need to understand that you can immediately restrict visits to the office as issues arise. The hope here is that this will help them from feeling blindsided if you ever have to close your facility again.
Reintroducing employees into a physical workspace involves some give-and-take their side as well. Workers who opt to return to the office need to be trained on any new precautions or policies you decide to implement.
Notify your team of any adjustments you've made to workplace policies — well before you reopen your space. After that, provide training on new or modified working schedules.
Let them know how they can stay up-to-date on any shifting scheduling requirements, and show them how to make scheduling changes should they need or want to.
At the very least, your employees should receive awareness training on cleaning and disinfection products you use in the workplace. If you decide to conduct health checks or reporting requirements, explain them to your workforce before they return — and insist they evaluate their health constantly if they're thinking about coming in.
Remind them to consistently wash their hands and do their best to maintain a six-foot buffer between themselves and their colleagues. The same goes for any sort of mask mandate you enforce.
COVID stress is universal. It's no secret that the pandemic has people on edge — so if you're reintroducing your workforce to a physical office space, you need to take strides to ease their nerves as much as possible.
Ensure that the workspace is welcoming and well-prepared for employee occupancy. As I mentioned at the start of this article, you'll need to make sure your facilities are safe and in working order. Once you have that squared away, be sure to tell your employees that the office is structurally and functionally sound.
Next, management should continuously check-in with employees to ensure that all concerns are heard, understood, and addressed. Again, communication is key here. Make sure they can reliably air any issues they might be having. Gather their feedback, and let them know you're willing to act on it.
You also need to notify workers about the precautionary measures you've decided to implement. For instance, if you've rearranged the office space configuration to more easily allow for social distancing, let your team know ahead of their return. You don't want to spring any big adjustments on them without giving them a chance to thoroughly think their return through.
Also, ensure that those protective measures and adjustments you plan on implementing are ready by the time your employees return. You don't want to find yourself rearranging your office while your team is present — potentially undermining those precautions and interfering with their day-to-day responsibilities.
Office reopenings may very well be on the horizon — and if your business is considering whether carrying out one of your own is worth the effort, make sure you have the time, resources, and motivation to address the points covered in this article.