5 tips for reopening the office safely

5 tips for reopening the office safely

Post-COVID-19, the office is going to look a lot different than it did at the start of 2020. Water-coolers are out and strict scheduling is in as firms try to keep the number of people in the office to a minimum, hand out personal protective equipment, and control the flow of people around the building to ensure social distancing.

“With the changing business landscape, you choose whether to adapt or get left behind. Our team is adapting well, but it has certainly been an adventure,” said Michelle Schumacher, CPA, CFO at Stoneridge Software, in Fargo, North Dakota.

Overhauling sick leave policies and drawing up new evacuation plans are some of the tasks for companies returning to the office, while others rethink how to use their workplace or consider whether to abandon it altogether.

Here are tips for those who are planning to reopen their shuttered workspaces:

Prioritise health

Safety is paramount and a return to the office has to be carefully planned and phased. Social distancing is essential, so companies need to strategise how to safely reintroduce staff, keep employee numbers low, and ensure desks are adequately separated.

Virtual meetings, along with tight restrictions on visitors and deliveries, are likely to be implemented by companies, which may shut communal break areas and insist that staff eat at their desks.

Accounting firm Eide Bailly is allowing up to 50% of their employees to come into the office while in phase one of reopening, said Lisa Fitzgerald, the company’s chief human resources officer. This allows the office to ensure there is sufficient space to socially distance, with the premises being deep-cleaned each weekend. Eide Bailly has locations throughout the US and an office in India, and those procedures often depend on local conditions and can vary.

“We’re starting on phase two now. We’re thinking to have 75% of staff [in the office] at any given time,” said Fitzgerald. “We do want the offices to go through phase one so that they have a good trial or a pilot. We need to continue to see the trends downwards and healthy.”

Keeping up to date with local regulations, providing hand sanitiser, and encouraging the use of masks are some of the steps taken by Eide Bailly, which expects most of its staff to return to the office eventually but is allowing staff to work from home for the remainder of this calendar year.

Others such as Stoneridge Software are putting their office return on hold through the end of the year, when schools have reopened and the pandemic picture may be clearer. “If we come up with a vaccine and it feels safe to do so, we can come back sooner,” said Schumacher. “We do our work well remotely. It pushes us to think even more about digital transformation and how we enable folks to leverage technology.”

Rethink real estate

Tech giant Twitter has already told its staff they did not have to come back to the office, and the success of homeworking means many firms are following suit. But that does not mean they will scrap their offices completely, at least for the time being.

Instead, companies may look to repurpose the workplace for special events, said Jason Deshayes, CPA, CGMA, Cook Wealth Management Group’s director of tax planning, whose office is in North Carolina. Offices could be transformed into collaboration spaces to brainstorm creative strategies or host live training events and eventually socially distanced conferences and client meetings, he said. “Your office becomes the hub for community where you have intentional functions together, rather than just a place where you're all sitting, saying you're working,” said Deshayes.

For companies locked into expensive leases, subletting space could be an option to help cover costs, said Deshayes, whose own firm is closer to remote for the foreseeable future. Others are consolidating offices or “hotelling” employees — allowing them to reserve a desk if they need to be physically present..

Plan for possible outbreaks

Companies already have plans in place to evacuate offices in case of fires or earthquakes, but now they need to add health emergencies to the list.

If an employee develops COVID-19 symptoms in the workplace, know how to get them safely out of the building, said Fitzgerald, who helped create a “playbook” to cover this scenario. Companies may need to close a floor or an entire building, before deep-cleaning it, tracking and tracing all staff in contact with the employee, and paying for COVID-19 tests, she said.

To reduce the chance of outbreaks at its offices, Eide Bailly is rolling out an app so that employees can answer a health questionnaire before coming to work.

Review policy

Coaxing any staff working from home to return to the office may prove a challenge, but for high-risk employees, those with vulnerable family members, or ones with children doing remote learning, going back to the workplace simply is not an option at present.

Companies need to ensure that those staff have the right technology and resources to continue working from home. More firms are now more likely to consider flexible working requests than before the pandemic struck.

Policies covering sick leave, health benefits, and paid time off will also need to be reviewed so that they adequately protect staff who contract COVID-19 or are required to self-isolate, said Fitzgerald. “It’s all up in the air and it’s all open for review right now, which is a good thing,” she said.

Maintaining close links with industry groups can also help companies adopt best practice to protect staff and stay up to date on the latest health-related technology.

Be flexible

Being nimble and quick-thinking is essential for companies as they reopen their offices, with the solutions they carefully craft now likely to be overhauled as they grapple with the fast-evolving situation.

More than ever, communication is critical to ensure staff understand the most recent guidelines from leadership.

“When we emerge past this… we’ll see the economy shift to what it needs to be for this generation,” said Deshayes. “People are going to figure out what works or what are the really cool opportunities, and they may not go back to what they did before.”

— Sophie Hares is a freelance writer based in Mexico. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at