COVID-19 isn’t going away anytime soon. As summer stretches into fall, non-essential businesses and organizations are agonizing over the difficult decision of when to bring their employees back to the office, if at all.

Whether you reopen your office next month or in 2021, one thing must be prioritized over everything else: keeping your employees healthy and safe. Although we aren’t experts in office design, we believe that the way you approach reopening your office says a lot about your commitment to the whole health of your employees. 

As you develop the plan for your organization we encourage you to consider the following 5 considerations.

1. Decide on your new normal

Organizations that went fully remote at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic have made some startling discoveries. First, they’ve found that the majority of their employees have demonstrated resilience and an ability to do great work away from the office setting. Second, they’ve uncovered a significant source of budget savings: cancelling their office lease or subletting their space.

We encourage you to view this decision as more than just a financial one. A dramatic change, like the shift to remote work, influences employee morale, social connections, and mental health. Make sure you ask the following questions to ensure you’ve considered employee whole health before deciding to close your office permanently.

  • What will be the impact on employee morale?
  • What new connection points will we need to invest in to ensure employees have adequate opportunities to connect with each other?
  • What extra investments in employee health will be required to ensure that we are caring for the bio, psycho, and social health of our employees? 

2. Update or create your pandemic preparedness plan

Depending on where your office is located, your organization will face different requirements for reopening. In most places, you’ll need to create or update a pandemic preparedness plan.

You should look to the CDC guidelines, as well as those from your local jurisdiction, to ensure it meets requirements. But, meeting requirements isn’t the only thing you should consider. We also recommend the following:

  • Get input from your employees: A plan shouldn’t just keep your employees safe, it should make them feel safe as well. As you develop your plan, gather input from those interested in sharing. Use this information to go above and beyond the requirements where it makes sense and makes people feel safer.
  • Be consistent in your communication: As employees navigate the emotional peaks and valleys of the COVID-19 pandemic, open and consistent communication about your commitment to keeping them safe and healthy is especially important.
  • Create ongoing feedback loops: As you start implementing your preparedness plan, make sure your employees have a safe way to provide input. Not all employees will engage, but knowing they can help give them peace of mind.

3. Realign desks and consider staggered work schedules

Cubicle culture is under assault by the coronavirus. Office layouts — the distribution and arrangement of desks and personal workspaces — have remained consistent for decades. Offices with desks arranged in rank and file dominated much of the 20th century until the desktop computing revolution pushed us into hive-like cubicles. 

Social distancing, especially in confined office spaces, will require new office configurations, including allowing enough space between workers who are required to work onsite. Staggered work schedules introduce a different kind of distancing based on time, while limiting the total number of people in a building at a single time. 

4. Lead with empathy

McKinsey’s report on leadership during a crisis goes all-in for humanizing the C-suite:

“Four qualities — awareness, vulnerability, empathy, and compassion — are critical for business leaders to care for people in crisis …”

Employees’ individual emotional responses to the COVID crisis may differ widely. Some may feel ready to return to work sooner than others. Some may have preexisting conditions or compromised immune systems and are afraid to go out in public at any level. Others face social and familiar problems — for example, child or elder care requiring them to be home.

Employees’ challenges and responsibilities may differ from management, but they too need time to adapt to the changing landscape. Employer sensitivity to their needs is essential for a successful transition back to the workplace.

5. Make employee mental health a priority

Mental health must be prioritized as the pandemic grinds on. Disruption on the magnitude of COVID-19 affects them deeply. No one can remain emotionally unaffected with so much COVID-fueled turmoil in our daily lives. In fact, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in late March revealed that more than 70% of respondents stated that the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health. 

Ensuring the proper outlets are in place for employees to get the support and help they need will make for a more productive workplace.

The bottom line

Not everybody’s normal will look the same, even within the same organization. Returning to the next approximation of business as usual will require the right plan and a commitment to investing in employee whole health. 

If you put in the hard work now, when employees return to the office on some future Monday, they can be healthy and productive, staying focused on their work, not their worries. Learn how health coaching is making a big impact in the time of COVID-19

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