MPs Take Slow, Safe Approach to Reopening Offices With Dozens of Data Points to Consider

As firm professionals have adjusted – first to the shock of the pandemic and then to working from home – another anxiety-ridden shift is beginning as states slowly allow returning to work.

Firm leaders interviewed by IPA are in no rush to unlock the doors. They are giving staff the option to come back when they are comfortable to do so, while weighing the risks of reopening and consulting guidance from numerous sources: their own HR experts, legal counsel, and state and federal health officials. Some are contacting vendors to conduct temperature checks, hiring sanitation crews and planning for social-distancing safeguards that were unimaginable even a few months ago.

Here are some of their comments:

  • A survey of staff by Miami-based MBAF, an IPA 100 firm, shows close to half are so concerned about their health that they want to continue to work from home at least through the summer. To avoid staff from working too close together when the office reopens, about 40% of the 30,000 square feet will have to remain unoccupied, says MP Tony Argiz.
  • Lou Grassi, MP of New York-based Grassi, says the IPA 100 firm won’t push employees to come back to the office immediately. Staff were invited to return starting June 15, with plans to sanitize offices weekly and implement six-foot distancing and other precautions. Grassi says staff will be encouraged to give feedback. “If there’s something about this that doesn’t make sense, we need to know.”
  • At Atlanta-based Aprio, an IPA 100 firm, Larry Sheftel, vice president of human resources, says the firm has contacted vendors about on-site temperature checks, and he expects far more remote working than pre-pandemic times. He says firm leaders are well aware that many staff will likely feel nervous about coming back. “Things may not really approach normal until the fall.”

Remote work under an extended lockdown has its own stresses and many will welcome their cubicle like an old friend, but even so, employees who walked out the door in March are different people now.

Todd Nordstrom, author, public speaker and coach, writes that some will be fearful of their health; some will be grateful for the care and concern they’ve been shown; some will be raring to move forward; others will be thinking that work isn’t as important as they once believed.

“We must realize that we don’t yet understand the emotional impact this pandemic has created in the hearts and minds of employees. And, we’ll never know unless we ask,” Nordstrom says in Forbes magazine.

Here are some of the considerations, compiled from legal and business publications:

  • Remember that at a bare minimum, follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and state and local governments. Rules are constantly changing and may not be consistent.
  • Create a re-entry task force to write interim policies until the pandemic is over, including disciplinary actions for violations of policies, including frequent hand washing, sanitizing frequently touched surfaces, wearing masks, maintaining social distancing and the like. Even-handed, consistent and thoughtful are the watchwords here. Don’t wing it, the National Law Review
  • Ask employees whether they have been exposed, have a sick person at home, or are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, such as cough, shortness of breath, chills, muscle pain, sore throat, or loss of taste and smell.
  • Supply paper towels instead of hand dryers because the jets can disperse virus particles, the Harvard Business Review reported. Disable water fountains and ice machines. Close common areas altogether rather than enforce social distancing.
  • Make a plan for notifying employees if they have been in contact (within 6 feet) of a coworker who has tested positive. Attorneys say the infected staffer should not be named; otherwise employers are in violation of federal privacy laws.
  • Think about how to approach concerns from employees about actions of their coworkers who congregate in crowds outside work.
  • Review time-off policies, including sick leave, and revamp business continuity plans to deal with the next crisis.

“It will be a fragile environment, so you want to be really deliberate and consistent in how you approach things,” says Kent Lambert, managing shareholder in the New Orleans office of Baker Donelson, on the legal news website Lexology.com. “Try to be responsible and fair and even-handed and put safety first. If you approach things in that way, you’ll be in good shape.

Other resources: