Heading Back to the Office: 5 Things I Learned from a Lawyer, a Doctor, and an HR Executive

Posted by Emily Leinbach on May 21st, 2020


Originally posted on LinkedIn by Dave Melville (CEO & Founder of The Bowdoin Group).

Over the past few weeks, the hot-button topic of returning to the workplace has weighed heavily on my mind as a business owner.

I know I’m not the only one. Every leader is trying to solve this puzzle and gathering as much information as they can to make the best decision for their organization.

To get some hard data as I navigate these uncharted waters, I surveyed leaders in a LinkedIn poll to find out when they plan to go back to work. The majority are planning a return some time this year (vs. 2021), but they indicated that they don’t know the specifics of how that’s going to happen.

But that wasn’t enough. To get some actionable advice, I decided to go straight to those who are on the front lines of this challenge.

Together with my dear friend and associate, Peter Pedro (EVP at Marsh & McLennan Agency – Northeast), we hosted a virtual panel with three experts to learn about the “how” and “when” to reopen offices from the perspectives of a medical doctor (Kevin Ban, MD, Chief Medical Officer at Walgreens), a lawyer (George Thompson, Esq., Vice President Employer Health & Benefits Compliance at Marsh & McLennan Agency – Northeast), and an HR leader (Ann (Kezer) Lazarus-Barnes, Chief Human Resources Officer at Lionbridge).

Here are my five, key takeaways:

1. Your employees may be more reluctant than you think in returning to the office.

While everyone wants to return to some semblance of “normalcy,” people are most concerned with their health.

As a leader, your job is to create a work environment where individuals are not worrying about whether they could be exposed to COVID-19. Employers who have the luxury of delaying the return to work are putting a stake in the ground and allowing employees to work remotely until 2021 to give themselves plenty of time to come up with an effective plan (with Google and Facebook leading the charge) or scrapping the idea of an office all together (Twitter and Square). According to our pre-webcast and LinkedIn surveys, 90% of employers reported either no discernible difference or an increase in productivity as we all currently work from home.

Wow.

2. It is imperative that you provide an extremely detailed and clear plan, not high-level suggestions with room for interpretation.

Ambiguity = confusion. Employees are counting on you to be as specific as possible. Ann Lazarus-Barnes (CHRO of Lionbridge) said, employees need to know “that you have thought through all of the conditions and scenarios.” They are looking for you to say, “here’s the punch list we went through for your benefit.”

Specifically, set clear instructions around:

  • How will restrooms be handled? Will they be cleaned after each use? Will there be a limitation on how many individuals can use them at a time?
  • How will the kitchen be cleaned? Will employees still be able to bring lunches to work and use the communal refrigerators? What about “high-touch” areas, like coffee machines, faucets, door handles, and microwaves?
  • What will the new office layout look like? Will there be markings on the floors assigning traffic patterns? What about desk use? Will you need to clean everything off your desk every day so both employees and cleaning services can disinfect every night and every morning?

3. It is possible to create a safe working environment, but it won’t happen overnight.

There is a lot of science and literature about how to stop the spread of COVID-19, and if you follow the protocols out there, you can keep your employees safe. That said, it’s not a one-size-fits all solution. If you have multiple offices across multiple states, you will likely not be able to issue a single policy. Lazarus-Barnes, for example, is planning for various scenarios across different geographies. One of their locations in Asia has started to allow people to return to work with 50% capacity. She’s instituted a Team A/Team B shift-based model with social distancing. They’re also allowing for 3-day pauses at their facilities to allow for cleaning and enabling the virus to potentially die, and also allowing for the illness to show up in the employee population.

In addition to the basics—practicing good hygiene, washing hands, wearing face coverings, and practicing social distancing—eliminate every potential risk for your employees.

4. There are real liability issues that you need to address.

There are so many legal implications of returning to work. Many of these are based on the new EEOC and ADA COVID-19 guidelines. Because this virus has been deemed a “direct threat,” there is a lot that you need to know when it comes to employee privacy and what you can and cannot share or ask in the workplace.

George Thompson, Esq., Vice President Employer Health & Benefits Compliance at Marsh & McLennan Agency – Northeast, said that the answer to all of these questions is “yes”:

  • Can I ask an employee before they come back if they have or had any symptoms?
  • Can I ask them if they had a family member with symptoms?
  • Can I take their temperature when they come in? Every day? Twice a day?
  • Can I require them to submit to a COVID-19 test?
  • Can I ask for a doctor certification of the diagnosis?

Once an employer becomes aware that an employee has tested positive, however, they cannot share it with anyone except the person’s managing supervisor.

Additionally, if an employee comes to the office and they’re exhibiting symptoms consistent with COVID-19, an employer can ask them to go home. Check the OSHA website for more detailed information regarding risk assessments across all parts of the office (e.g., employee, cubes, work floor plan, etc.).

5. This is NOT a race to be the first ones back.

This really stuck with me. Asking people to return to the office means so much more than just   returning to the office itself. Many daycares are still closed. Public transportation is necessary to get to the office. The risks of going back to work too quickly and with blinders on as it relates to so many other challenges your employees are facing outweighs the benefit of returning to the workplace at all.

Return to the workplace when you are fully prepared and know that you have eliminated all risks for your employees.  Good luck.

Check out the entire recording from our live webcast on May 14th, 2020, here:

Please reach out to me, Dave Melville ([email protected]), to help you hire your next leader to guide you through these challenges.

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