Industry POV: Bringing Employees Back To The Office Safely

Bringing Employees Back

The Women Tech Council has been invaluable as a sounding board and for mind-sharing, particularly when it comes to bringing employees back to the office.

In mid-March, within a 48-hour period, our company transitioned 67 people from our physical office space to working from home. Our IT department worked nearly around the clock to ensure business operations were not delayed and that they didn’t break down.

Our experience mirrored tens of thousands of companies across the globe. As the situation dragged into April and May, many of us began to struggle to consider hopeful back-to-the-office scenarios. When and how could we safely bring employees back to the office, we found ourselves wondering. We asked questions like these: Will employees be comfortable returning? How will we do our best to ensure their safety? What if someone won’t come back?

As we struggled with those questions, we saw many other companies asking the same things. The Salt Lake City UT-based Women Tech Council (WTC), among other groups, has been a great resource for us, and it continues to be so. The WTC focuses on women’s economic impact in driving growth for the technology sector. It does so through networking opportunities with more than 10,000 women and men who work in technology companies all over the world.

During the early days of the pandemic, this network of technology professionals provided a much-needed forum to discuss ideas and brainstorm solutions to the hard questions that businesses were facing (and continue to confront). According to Cydni Tetro, President of the WTC, “Forums we created shared and disseminated best practices for responding to everything from employee-safety measures and business-continuity planning to product response and community-service needs. We’ve seen the strength, resilience and innovation of so many individuals and companies, and we’ve been able to help organizations and employees get the best tools and resources to keep everyone safe and move business forward.”

The WTC hosted Zoom calls each Friday—any WTC member could join them—in which the group would tackle several topics. We were fortunate to have several people who sat on our governor’s novel coronavirus (COVID-19) task force, and they updated us on the task force’s daily meetings.

One of the benefits of the calls was their providing a forum to discuss how employees were feeling about returning to an office environment, as well as to examine new protocols to ensure employees’ safety and comfort when they return to the office. Our company conducted surveys as economies began to reopen, gauging how employees felt about returning to the office. The majority of our employees (84 percent) were comfortable returning to the workplace, feeling like the company and local government agencies were taking the right steps to protect their families and them.

We referenced the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state health websites for information. The WTC sent a Return-to-Work survey to its members. The survey included questions such as the following: Do you have a timeframe that employees will begin returning to the office? When do you expect to have your full staff back in the office? The survey also specifically asked which protocols companies were implementing. Many companies used the results to create plans for heading back to the office.

As we had worked from early on to anticipate and develop a robust back-to-the-office plan, WTC asked me to present that plan to the group. I appreciated the opportunity to gather feedback.

Several discussions and calls later, we had identified new protocols and ideas for businesses to consider as they bring their employees back to the workplace. Although each company’s plan will be unique to its business and employees, several members shared the following as part of their respective back-to-the-office policies:

  • Temperature-taking stations: Some WTC member companies said they felt this should be mandatory. Indeed, some went as far as to install thermal-imaging scanning at their offices. Others opted to have self-service stations at each of their entrances.
  • Deep cleaning: Across the board, companies committed to step up cleaning efforts, increasing both frequency and depth of cleaning. One company decided to do more frequent cleaning; another proposed requiring employees to work from home on a weekday, thus allowing time for deep cleaning midweek and reducing occupancy loads in buildings
  • Physical distancing: Member companies considered ways to ensure safe physical distance between employees, whether in the executive suite or on the factory floor. Ideas included reconfiguring and spreading out desks and workstations; rerouting foot traffic to minimize congestion in hallways and common spaces; closing conference rooms, break rooms, kitchens and other communal gathering areas; and even staggering shifts and the days when employees would be in the office.
  • Hand sanitizing: Members proposed many ideas for this—everything from installing sinks and hand-washing stations in workspaces; to placing hand-sanitizer dispensers outside every office, restroom and elevator, and at all building entrances; to reminding employees not to share pens or other office items; to providing alcohol wipes to disinfect machinery and shared equipment before and after use.
  • Bring your own device (BYOD): Some companies are loosening BYOD restrictions, whereas others are considering providing employees a stipend to purchase their own laptops, headphones, etc., thus reducing the need to share devices.
  • Masks: Businesses are developing mask policies consistent with state and health-agency guidelines, as well as their unique work environments. This situation is fluid and unprecedented. For that reason, we have to assess and modify our response constantly, as circumstances and health guidelines change.

The safety of our employees is paramount. I continue to keep in touch with leaders across the country as they navigate bringing employees safely back to the office; we update our policies and processes based on best practices shared among the group, as well as based on our own employee feedback and guidance from local, state and federal health agencies. The ability to share information has been invaluable in the management of these most unusual times.

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S&C august 2021 digital edition
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