How to Safely Reopen the Office [Video]

Devin Foster

As businesses begin to reopen, many HR professionals are designing their employees’ return. But what will it look like?
 

Phenom’s Keca Ward, Global Sr. Director of Talent Experience, shares her team’s approach to safely returning to the workplace, the precautions every employer should take, and how to communicate change to your employees.
 


Check out highlights from the show:

 

When and why did you reopen the Phenom office?

We just opened our doors this week. A lot went into it, but it was really the employees and research behind it that made us think, we can do this. 
 

It was no easy decision. We did a preliminary survey early on to understand what employees were thinking in terms of returning to work. It was a gut check—we were having conversations internally, but we didn’t know how employees were feeling. 
 

The survey revealed what we expected—-that there were low numbers of people expecting to return. Then we sent another survey, explaining we were thinking of opening the doors, and what that looks like. The numbers remained low—which was a good thing. If the numbers were higher, the risk would have been greater. In that case, we would have had to take a different approach to reopening.
 

Overall, our employees were still uneasy about going into the office. But the feedback loop and additional research revealed that the risks were low enough for us to look into the next steps of reopening. We also did not rush to make any decisions. We spoke to other businesses in the area and our clients to learn how they safely reopened their office doors. 
 

We decided to first take volunteers who were interested in going back. There was no requirement for Phenoms to return to the office. We are so fortunate to be able to telecommute as an organization, which is what is recommended by the CDC

 

How should employers safely reopen the office during the pandemic? 

A lot of research went into preparing a plan to reopen our office. Here are the steps we took:
 

1. Research and talk with other HR leaders. Over the last several months and as early as March, I began to do my own research on infectious diseases. I then started to read and listen to as many CDC and Department of Health updates on social media, including live sessions and press conferences. I also attend various webinars and trainings on preparedness and reopening. We are fortunate to belong to a Mid-Atlantic Employer’s Association (MEA), which helped with many HR-related topics prior to COVID. 
 

Since the start of the pandemic, MEA has been an invaluable resource to reopening. They also have legal and compliance information, which I found very valuable. They held weekly COVID update meetings on topics including the CARES Act and Families First Coronavirus Response Act, as well as recovery and reopening. 
 

Additionally, our own employer legal council had many webinars over the course of the last few months. I also reached out to many HR leaders to get a pulse on how they were preparing to reopen. The CDC, state, and county all have “Back To Work” documents that detail what this should look like. 
 

2. Choose and appoint a task force to lead the charge. Our Safety Task Force team all worked together in order to guide the company through change, as well as prepare to open our doors. We spent many countless hours of meetings and research developing our plan. We continue to meet weekly. I also recommend taking Pandemic Safety Office training.
 

3. Create an Infectious Disease Preparedness document. This should serve as a guide for educating employees, maintaining safe business operations, and creating a healthy work environment. This document should entail everything from flexible sick leave policies and compliance to cleaning proposals and exposure plans. Be sure to share this with your Safety Task Force as we get ready to reopen, and assign tasks and responsibilities throughout the preparedness phase. 
 

4. Implement physical changes to the office environment. To enforce these guidelines, I have a weekly check-in call with those in charge. We are also very fortunate to use Slack internally so we can add updates on the fly. 
 

5. Arrange safety training for employees. If they plan to come back, they need to know what the new office looks like and what the new guidelines are. I held several trainings for all employees who were interested in coming back. During each session, we talked about everything from CDC and Department of Health guidelines to what Phenom was doing to support those efforts. There was Q&A with many questions. It was great.
 

I also prepared new written documentation with safety guidelines for all employees after the training to confirm that they were comfortable with the new protocols. It’s important to protect the workforce for both our employees, as well as their families. 
 

6. Establish an effective feedback loop for monitoring and optimizing. This will allow you to get a frequent gut check on your employees and procedures, and quickly make adjustments to your plan as needed. 

 

What are the most important precautions to keep employees safe?

It is important to follow CDC guidelines and take extra precautions such as daily temperature checks and limiting the amount of “high-touch” areas in the office to reduce the spread. This means there are no common areas, shared supplies, etc. We have also placed a restriction on visitors in the office.

 

What tips do you have for other HR teams as they begin the same process? 

  • Learn about infectious diseases, and specifically how COVID-19 spreads.
     
  • Read the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act),  which regulates health and safety in the workplace. Download the guide on preparing the workplace.
     
  • Review your state’s Department of Health and local county websites’ COVID-19 resources. Also monitor other counties, states, or countries in which you have offices for up-to-date information. Watch press conferences, live sessions, and sign up for webinars.
     
  • Regularly check the CDC website for guidance—particularly the “Resources for Businesses” tab. 
     
  • Organize your own environment by creating a shared spreadsheet where others can collaborate and add content.  
     
  • Have an exposure plan in place to prepare the office for a confirmed COVID-19 case. Understand confidentiality and protect workers confidential medical information. 

Talent Experience Live is a weekly show where we discuss what’s happening right now in recruiting, talent acquisition, talent management, and HR tech. Catch us on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube every Thursday at noon ET!