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  • Hannah Brown

Updated Return to the Office Policies and Checklist

For return to the office, many small and mid-sized firms were planning to return 2, 3 or 4 days/week just after Labor Day. Almost all of them have decided to walk that back, either delaying the plans until October (or in some cases January) or asking people to come in just 1 day/week and to work primarily in project teams so that the office is not 100% occupied at any time. Most of the concerns I have heard have come from parents of children under 12 who don’t want to pass something on to their kids after being so careful for so long. Other concerns come from those with elderly parents or grandparents who live alongside the employees. Others are just anxious for a variety of reasons, including anxiety that comes with change and uncertainty.

Several larger firms are asking, in some cases demanding, that staff return to the office through various means. This includes mandating a specific number of days in person/in office with teams or gently coercing with paid lunches. Generally, the larger firms have a lot of coordination that they need to consider for large-scale projects and so motivating people to be in office is a real concern and focus.

Not sure what to do? I would assess with the firm's leadership how big of a push should be made for work in the office. Perhaps you can stagger 1or 2 days in the office per week, getting comfortable with being in person for a short period before you reassess again? Perhaps it is imperative for a deadline on a big project, that a group of individuals be in office together for a certain number of days? I realize that we all have overwhelming decision fatigue but this fall and winter, we must be prepared to plan and then revise that plan for how people work. I empathize that this is harder than switching to all remote which we all did in a panicked, adrenaline-fueled overdrive.

And here is a revised checklist of things to prepare. You might not need all of them on day one, but be ready to answer questions and concerns because problems are inevitable if you don't address these items. And the biggest issue will be that your employees will be overwhelmed and anxious when you are silent. It's a long list. If you appoint your Office Manager as Health and Safety Officer or you take it on yourself, know that we are here to help you wade through these requirements and recommendations.

  • Appoint a Health or Safety Officer. For the next 12-18 months you need a point person for all questions and concerns regarding the below. This person should frequently review CDC, WHO, state and local ordinances and will need to adapt the below accordingly.

  • A Covid Prevention Plan. In California, a Covid Prevention Plan per Cal/OSHA standards is a requirement for all employers with 1+ persons in their office. Preparing your CPP will force you to look at office ventilation, employee screening before entering the office, and office cleaning as well as what to do in cases of exposure at work.

  • Vaccination Policy and/or Proof of Vaccination. Whatever you do, don't be silent or passive on this topic. There are nuisances here, but the bottom line is that employers may mandate vaccination as long as they allow reasonable accommodations for religious or medical leaves. You may also simply encourage and ask for proof of vaccination on a voluntary basis. If you are able to state that your workforce is 100% vaccinated, you may alleviate some of your staff's concerns for their well being and the well being of their families. Also, many of your workplace policies will be simpler to navigate if you know your employees' vaccination status.

  • Review and potentially revise sick leave policies and procedures.  Employers should require that symptomatic employees stay home and are symptom-free for at least 24 hours without medication. Employers may require or recommend COVID testing in cases of illness. Be prepared for employees with sick or quarantined children to work from home. This may mean reduced work hours or use of sick leave.

  • A travel policy. Those who travel for work or personal reasons may be asked or required to quarantine and work from home. You may also require a negative PCR test for return to the office or site visits. The time frame for work from home may be 3-5 days while obtaining a test, or longer if unvaccinated. Travel policies should be easily revised as CDC guidelines shift often.

  • Air exchange.  Windows open will be the easiest solution and is highly recommended for fresh air. Firms will need to look at their HVAC systems with landlords/building managers and HVAC experts to understand how the systems improve air quality or may need an upgrade. As windows open is our best remedy, plan for bad air days with wildfire season upon us. At an AQI of 150+, you may need to require all staff to work from home, but if you know that your staff is 100% vaccinated, you may be able to advise staff to close the windows and keep working.

  • Technology Needs. All of the above requirements will mean employees are going to be working from home from time-to-time. Work with your IT consultant to provide a few shared laptops and easy access to files to make work form home easier.

  • Supply of PPE. Employers are required to have a supply of N95 masks available upon request. Hard hats, vests, and goggles should not be shared unless you are ready to implement a cleaning and disinfecting plan for these articles.

  • Disinfecting and cleaning. Provide disinfectant wipes and sanitizer throughout the office and polices for cleaning of the office. Current recommendation is at least a daily cleaning of handles, keypads, high touch surfaces, and common areas. Remind employees to wipe down shared ipads and workstations after use. Assign and train those responsible for the cleaning. Remove personal items and excess items from desks to allow for more thorough cleaning and/or ask staff to disinfect desks before they go home for the day. Have an on-call service ready to throughly clean and disinfect if there is a positive case in the office and plan to close for a day or two until that cleaning is completed.

  • Seating arrangements. Currently, social distancing is not required. As we get used to being in close proximity or a high percentage of unvaccinated staff, you might consider staggering the number of people in the office or rearranging desks.

  • Visitor policy. Limit visitors to the office, including friends and family. Consider if you want to create a policy for visitors asking for their vaccination status, and be ready to act, likely refusing access to the office, if they do not answer or refuse to answer.

  • Signage at the front door and in the kitchen and commons areas with reminders about the above items.

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