As lockdowns slowly ease, it’s clear that employees are not rushing back to their offices.
Employers are doing their part to maintain social distancing, minimize touch points, and step up visible cleaning and disinfection routines. Company cafeterias are closed, coffee makers are unplugged, and desks are separated by plastic. Elevators might take just one person at a time, and hallways and stairwells might be one way. Prized perks like beer taps, wine bars, shared snacks, and fancy corporate gyms – all casualties of the coronavirus.
Every part of office life has been reexamined in the era of COVID-19. Companies have spent decades cramming more people into tighter spaces with open desks to promote collaboration and teamwork. Now these designs are a big problem. Modifying offices to allow at least some employees to come back can be even more challenging than sending everyone home.
Employers must adhere to a patchwork of local guidelines about face coverings, permitted services, and more. And with no single safety standard or guidelines on how to handle confirmed COVID-19 cases, companies are making it up as they go. Some employers are issuing face masks and hand sanitizer to returning employees, others are looking to technology to measure worker proximity and track employee health.
Even with all this effort, employees still have concerns. Will they be able to avoid people who refuse to follow state or local mandates to wear masks? Will it be safe to use essential common spaces like restrooms?
And then there’s the question of simply getting to work. Public transportation systems serving commuters in densely populated cities like New York and Chicago are a major concern, with some companies considering alternatives, such as private bus services to ferry employees. Companies in these places may remain shuttered longer than those that are drivable to avoid putting workers through a public commute.
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted – and reinvented – “business as usual.” Workspaces must be safe, clean, and assured. Some screening methods may raise privacy and employment law issues, and we may see more regulatory guidance.
Long term, the pandemic could fundamentally alter the way businesses operate. Many organizations learned that they can work virtually better than they thought. They were able to move quickly and decisively during a crisis – even while away from the office. With tech giants like Twitter and Facebook embracing the trend, odds are on remote work becoming a permanent option for many.
For more on coping with the pandemic, check out Coronavirus Containment: A Handbook for Risk and Compliance Professionals and all of our crisis preparedness resources here.