Before COVID-19, whenever I heard the word “reentry,” I always thought about a space shuttle hurtling toward the Earth’s atmosphere. But now, in the middle of a pandemic, it means something entirely different–namely, the process of bringing employees back to office environments, safely and effectively.
The “why” of bringing employees back into the office is clear. But the “how” is keeping CEOs up at night. A new survey from The Conference Board reveals that getting employees back to work in the physical workspace ranks third on the list of U.S. CEOs’ biggest concerns.
The same survey found that, regardless of a company’s location or size, attracting and retaining top talent ranks as the number one priority for CEOs and other C-suite executives globally in 2021. This finding intersects with employee concerns about the health and safety of their workplaces.
Though vaccines have created optimism, some employees are still concerned about going back to work in an office. They lack confidence that COVID precautions will be in place. More importantly, they would like companies to make the necessary investment to create safe environments.
It’s not just a handful of apprehensive employees. Wakefield Research surveyed 2,000 people who typically work in buildings with 500 or more employees. The survey found a staggering majority of the global workforce (68 percent) does not feel completely safe working in their buildings.
While re-entering the workplace won’t be as difficult as penetrating the Earth’s atmosphere, it will require some heavy lifting. Real estate firm JLL reports that one in three employees expect less density and some physical separation in the workplace.
Right now, AP is renovating a Dallas-area facility to help lessen the COVID-19 spread. The makeover called for our firm to modify the entire 78,000-square-foot building to facilitate social distancing.
Renovations include a completely touch-free environment with contactless doors, restroom facilities, and elevators. Additional upgrades include air-quality improvements, building control modifications, and adjustments to floor spaces. The project, designed by BOKA Powell, is slated to last for seven months.
Some companies have pushed back the reopening of their workplaces to later this year. JLL projects a reentry timeline that will see most offices reaching 80 percent capacity by December 2021.
For those of you struggling to determine your reentry strategy, here are seven steps for a successful return to the office:
- Work with the building owner/landowner to determine which modifications/improvements have already been made and what else can be done. Specifically, you should discuss HVAC, air quality, and janitorial/cleaning for common areas, including lobbies and elevators. You should also review policies and procedures for visitors and deliveries to limit unnecessary foot traffic.
- Ensure your buildings are in safe and proper working order if they have been unoccupied. Before bringing people back and returning buildings to their previous use, facilities should be thoroughly inspected and remediated for any potential moisture issues. After ensuring they’re free of moisture, HVAC systems should be operated for 48 to 72 hours before occupants return. Weekly checks of HVAC systems are recommended for approximately six weeks after buildings are reopened.
- Accept that you’re investing in the health of your employees and the future health of your company. Rely on experts to help you make a smart and necessary investment in your employees and your company’s health. To make reentry feasible from a cost perspective, work with external and internal finance, construction, and facilities professionals to create a reasonable budget and prioritize must-haves.
- Contact vendors and partners to get on their schedule for renovations. Even if your company has a large facilities department, it may be a lot to handle everything required for successful reentry. Reach out to design professionals, general contractors, and other construction professionals now to make sure you’re on their radar. Timing is important because other companies will be doing the same thing, and you don’t want to end up last in line. The consequences of not moving quickly enough are wide-ranging: material shortages, supply chain disruption, delayed reentry/reopening, and loss of competitive advantage when attracting and retaining employees.
- Modify the physical workspace. For many companies, the post-pandemic workplace may serve a different purpose than before – perhaps its main purpose is to further the three Cs (collaboration, coaching, and culture) or to accommodate a hybrid remote/office workforce. Reconfigure gathering/lobby areas and widen corridors to support social distancing. Install touchless technology for elevators and bathrooms and eliminate buttons and touchscreens. Consider seating assignments for employees and redesigned breakrooms/lunchrooms.
- Amend workspace policies and procedures. If you haven’t already revised your workplace guidelines, implement staggered arrivals and departures for employees to reduce clogged and congested common areas and elevators. Create alternating schedules to allow for a hybrid remote/office workforce. Enforce new cleaning protocols for high-touch areas such as bathrooms, supply/copy rooms, and breakrooms (make sure those soap and hand sanitizer dispensers are full!)
- Engage employees and communicate your commitment to their health and safety. More than 40 percent of employees are worried that building management won’t consistently enforce health and safety guidelines. That means it’s extremely important to clearly and regularly communicate with employees to build trust and confidence in workplace safety.
CEOs can invest in their workplaces now to entice employees back to the office, prevent downtime from COVID outbreaks, attract and retain the best talent, and encourage future productivity and profitability.
A successful office reentry is possible. With patience and planning, CEOs and their employees can experience a safe landing and a new beginning.
Granger Hassmann is the Vice President of Preconstruction and Estimating at Adolfson & Peterson Construction.