Businesses trying to get their employees back into offices and other facilities face challenges that will require planning and communication. Lynne Anderson, a partner at Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP in Florham Park, provided a road map for owners and executives during an online conference.
“The key thing to remember is to stay calm and stay focused,” Anderson said. She recommended that every business establish a task force to handle the process of bringing staff back. She noted that the COVID-19 virus is new and that a “patchwork of regulations” have sprouted as government agencies struggled to deal with it. The presentation, titled Employment Law and COVID-19, was part of a BioNJ Virtual HR Conference held on June 23.
“Leaders will want to go back to business as usual,” Anderson suggested, but that won’t be possible, at least in the short term. Activities such as travel and in-office celebrations will have to be changed. “All these things are going to be dramatically different.”
For the moment, telecommuting should remain the norm. While offices can be opened, all will need to adhere to social distancing requirements that “if someone can work remotely, they still should work remotely.” But as workers return, businesses will have to enforce basic protocols following guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – namely, masks, social distancing and hand-washing.
But the CDC also recommends that businesses should not provide food for staff. Refrigerators and coffee machines should be shut down and employees should bring their own utensils and mugs. Anderson also noted that leaders will have to figure out how to handle elevators, possibly reassign workspaces to maintain social distancing and implement staggered work hours to prevent large numbers of employees converging on the building all at once. She advised executives to work with their landlords to figure out what other tenants are doing. “You don’t want everyone to arrive at nine and leave at six.”
All of these actions should be covered in a return-to-work plan of four to five pages that summarizes all off the containment efforts. “It still has to have a fair amount of detail,” Anderson said, such as whether and when the copy machine will be sanitized.
She also suggested open floor plans, which had become common in recent years, will “present a challenge to social distancing.” Plexiglas dividers could help but couches and high-top tables will have to be removed. The use of conference rooms will be limited and companies without assigned seating will have change their approach.
Businesses will undoubtedly incur expenses with the return, especially if a staff member gets sick after reopening. “Deep cleaning, which will be required to get back on line or after someone tests positive, costs $20,000 to $30,000 a pop,” Anderson noted.
On testing, Anderson said companies can administer tests, “but the test must be reliable.” And the results must be treated as any other medical record. She also noted that the CDC has insisted that antibody tests not be used to make decisions about whether someone should be allowed back to work.
Beyond the environmental changes, Anderson argued that leaders should approach reopening with a different mindset. “There will be a lot of pressure to come back on-site,” she said. But businesses should not mandate showing up at the office unnecessarily. “Feeling like you’re going to be more productive at the office … that’s not a justifiable reason” to come back, she said.
Anderson also urged employers not to disregard workers’ fears, avoid focusing on returning to old ways of doing business and be on guard against complacency.
One aspect of doing business likely won’t change: litigation. While there has been some efforts to provide relief, legal action is inevitable, according to Anderson. “The lawsuits are coming folks.”