Months into a global pandemic, the idea of returning to “business as usual” may feel strange to think about and maybe even a little scary.
But with infection rates starting to plateau, non-essential businesses are beginning to consider when and how they might reopen offices and welcome employees back. As governments debate rolling back restrictions, HR teams have started drafting their own contingency plans and discussing what a post-COVID-19 workplace might look like.
Those clamoring for a nationwide “grand reopening” might be disappointed. Instead of inviting employees back all at once, most HR leaders are planning to have them return in phases once non-essential businesses are allowed to open back up.
“When the curve is finally flat, we’ll begin a phased reopening. We’re planning a gradual transition: Only half of the team will work in the office each day, while the other half will work from home. This will work on a rotational basis, so everyone will spend five days every two weeks at the office and five days working from home,” said Samuel Johns, an HR Specialist at ResumeGenius.
Teams discussed other configurations and ideas, including allowing employees to come on site no more than three days per week. Some companies, like Duolingo, shared their gradual reopening plans with the public. Others were planning to mirror federal and state return-to-work guidelines, which are expected to take a phased approach as well.
“We'll be rolling changes out in waves, and are figuring things out now. Our first phase will occur when shelter-in-place is lifted in our city, and will largely involve minimizing in-office headcount by rotating staff in shifts, like having marketing and sales come in during designated times,” said Kate Noyes, HR Manager at Softbank Robotics.
Companies had already started encouraging hand washing before coronavirus forced them to go remote. When it’s time to finally reopen offices, expect teams to amplify those efforts tenfold.
“We’re going to order reusable masks with our company logo and set up disinfecting stations throughout the office,” said Caitie Finnegan, Head of People and Culture at Freemark Financial. Finnegan and other HR leaders were planning on regularly disinfecting their offices with professional help. “We’re hiring outside cleaning staff to wipe down shared surfaces, like cabinet handles, printers, and coffee machines,” she said.
HR leaders also shared plans to reconfigure offices in the interest of cleanliness. That meant separating desks, adding dividers, and installing sneeze guards. Some even considered designating specific areas as temperature “checkpoints” to ensure employees weren’t reporting to work with a fever.
Another recommendation was to eliminate shared spaces altogether. In a crowdsourced reopening doc, Atlassian shared that it was considering closing its kitchens and distributing pre-packaged food and beverages to on-site employees. The software company was also considering closing its wellness facilities and game rooms for the foreseeable future.
The switch to remote work, like the virus itself, has impacted everyone differently. Though some may be clamoring for face time, at-risk employees won’t be keen to return so quickly. The leaders we spoke to made it clear that when doors open, employees will have the opportunity to take their time.
“When we reopen, we aren't going to force people to come into the office. Some people are more at risk than others on our team. We don't want to make anyone feel like they have to come into work and risk exposure,” said Shawn Breyer, founder of Atlanta House Buyers. For roles where remote work wasn’t as feasible, his team was planning to allow employees to opt into coming in one or two times a week.
In general, HR professionals felt there were still too many unknowns to make returning mandatory for everyone. “With this virus being so unpredictable, I would personally allow employees to still work from home if they prefer. I would revisit this on a regular basis, maybe monthly, as more info on the COVID situation becomes available,” said Becky Moloney, People Operations Generalist at Scaled Agile.
HR teams have labored over how to best preserve company culture and working relationships while everyone is remote. After months of working at home, switching back to in-person collaboration might prove just as challenging. That’s especially true for remote managers who had to adjust their working style and find the sweet spot between micromanaging and appearing distant.
Eric Fischgrund is the founder of FischTank, a New York-based PR agency. Almost a fifth of his company was hired in March, shortly after companies started directing employees to go remote. These new hires have only ever worked with their teammates over teleconference. “It’s difficult for people to go from managing someone remotely for months to suddenly seeing them face to face,” Fischgrund said.
Once reopening becomes a safer proposition, he’s planning on reuniting the team before going right back into business as usual. “We’ll likely start with an outing or meal and drinks — most likely not at a restaurant — where everyone can relax around one another,” he said. After breaking the ice (sans handshakes), he hopes to have employees in the office just a few times per week to get familiar with working together.
“We’ll slowly transition back into a normal ‘routine,’ my emphasis being on routine — since who knows what that becomes,” he said.
HR teams are also weighing other considerations. With many states closing schools for the rest of the semester, childcare was of particular concern. “It's unclear if summer camps will be open to taking children when parents eventually return to work...We're getting a lot of pressure from employees to provide a date they can work with to make plans, but that's increasingly difficult as our state simply keeps extending the shelter in place order at the last minute,” one HR professional said.
Companies featured in an exhaustive resources list organized by HR leader Lars Schmidt opted to let affected parents and caretakers stay remote until daycares and related services reopen. “If employees are impacted by dependent care service providers or if they are part of a vulnerable population, they should continue to work from home if needed,” a company memo read.
Commuting was also a big concern. Even at-risk employees who want to return to work likely won’t be eager to take a crowded bus, train, or subway to get there. That reality has led some companies to implement a new, generous perk. “For those who take public transportation, we are increasing their monthly reimbursement so they can take Uber or Lyft instead of the metro,” said Finnegan.
With most states holding firm on social distancing guidelines, most companies’ reopening plans aren’t likely to be implemented until mid-May at the earliest. But while some teams were excited by the prospect of moving back in, emotions were surprisingly mixed. The past few months have forced many to rethink their attitudes toward remote work. Lattice survey data bears this out, with over 60% of companies reporting that they’re likely to make remote work a standard option after the crisis.
“We’ve discussed finding a small space to lease for use as just a conference room for big meetings...But the feedback from the team made that seem unnecessary,” said Trav Walkowski, People Strategy Partner at Employmetrics, a global human resources consulting firm. For his team, it wasn’t just about deciding when to move back in — it was about whether they should do it at all.
“Remote has been working so well that we aren’t going back to having an office space,” Walkowski said.
Another HR professional in the Resources for Humans Slack community agreed. “Our employees have mentioned that this time made them reprioritize what’s important to them. They’d like more freedom to be able to spend time with family,” she said.
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