Finding a balance: Planning for reopening offices

Companies need to prepare for the reopening of office space and the changed realities of work.
Finding a balance: Planning for reopening offices

As countries lift COVID-19-related lockdowns, more businesses are considering reopening offices. Finance professionals will be an integral part of the reopening decision process and will need to think carefully about how to proceed.

While continuing with remote working may help reduce the risk of transmission of the virus within offices or on public transport, some employees might be keen to return to the office. Some may feel burnt out after six months of working at home with the pressures of childcare and boredom, while other employees may want to be in the office for purely practical reasons — lack of equipment, poor internet connections, and multiple people working from the same home.

Every organisation is going to be different in the response needed to get offices back open, depending upon who owns the building, the size of the office, and whether employees are likely to use public transport.

Whatever the situation for your organisation, here are some key considerations for finance professionals to keep front of mind when weighing reopening the office.

Prioritise health and safety. Where offices are opening, business leaders must ensure that health and safety is prioritised.

“Wherever possible, employees should work or access the business from home to minimise the number of workers that need to be physically present,” wrote Tom Hood, CPA/CITP, CGMA, president and CEO of the Maryland Association of CPAs and the Business Learning Institute, in a recent article, highlighting the need to prioritise employees’ health and safety.

Hood pointed out a number of ways this can be done, including by requiring face coverings in communal spaces, mandating self-quarantine for any employees with symptoms, providing additional cleaning supplies and handwashing facilities, and reconfiguring office interiors to promote physical distancing.

Staff work schedules should also be considered, said Roshni Patel, design and innovation adviser at London-based Reputable.Design. “Organisations may need to stagger when people are working, to limit strain on congregation points like lifts and canteens,” she said.

There are different ways of making this work. Some organisations are looking at splitting teams into groups that alternate time in the office, which as well as reducing the number of people in the office also reduces the risk of a whole team falling ill simultaneously.

Other businesses are being flexible with workhours, allowing people to start work much earlier or later than normal to reduce strain on public transport and entrances to offices.

Allow choice where possible. Employers must be aware that some employees or someone they live with will have health conditions which make them particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, meaning a return to the office remains unlikely for many months.

Organisations may also find that some employees have discovered that they enjoy working from home and don’t want to come back into the office.

The optimal situation is likely to be to give employees the choice of coming into the office or continuing to work from home, where possible.

“We will not ask anyone on our team to come back until they are ready,” Hood wrote, highlighting the need to give employees a choice. Some companies, such as Twitter, have already made high-profile commitments to this principle, telling employees that they can choose to move to remote working permanently.

Supporting those at home. COVID-19 is presenting new questions about how far employers’ duty of care to their employees extends. Employers are expected to carry out health and safety checks for office-based working, including ensuring that desks and chairs are fit for purpose. But does this extend to those working from home?

Some employers are offering support to help employees set up safe working stations at home, either by shipping equipment to home addresses or allowing items such as chairs to be claimed on expenses. The legal situation will also vary by country and industry, so business leaders should ensure that they are not opening their organisation up to the risk of legal action being taken by employees who have not been supported to create a safe working environment at home.

“It all comes down to the balance,” Patel said. “What are the risks of people from working at home versus the risk of hundreds of people using lifts, touching everything, and not being able to distance. At the moment, most organisations are seeing reopening as the bigger risk.”

Management accountants need to consider these risks and ensure they are effectively mitigated.

Whether organisations are ready to reopen offices tomorrow or decide to hold off for now, listening to employees and understanding their concerns is absolutely key.

“An organisation’s culture and the voice of employees is really important,” Patel said. “It’s not about dictating how things are going to be done, but instead bringing in the viewpoint of employees to understand what they want.”

Bryony Clear Hill is the associate manager–Ethics Awareness for CIMA and is based in the UK. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at