Going back to work in the office is a source of concern for employees, especially in states that have started to reopen or are getting ready to do so even as cases of COVID-19 in their populations are increasing. Despite warnings from the CDC that reopening prematurely will cause a second wave of the virus, states opening their economies amid growing numbers of coronavirus cases include Indiana, Kansas, Nebraska, Texas, Minnesota, Tennessee and Iowa, reports The New York Times.
The majority of big corporate employers are taking a compassionate approach, allowing employees who feel uncomfortable returning to the office ahead of CDC recommendations to continue working from home. They are also being thoughtful about how to make the workplace safe for returning workers, notes David Sapin, principal, connected solutions, with consulting firm PwC.
“There is a huge concern regarding liability,” notes Joy DeBacker, managing director of asset management for Los Angeles-based office owner Olive Hill Group. “What if someone gets sick at the workplace, or worse, succumbs to COVID-19 due to workplace exposure? Employers must ensure they are implementing strategies that are known to reduce the spread of this disease.”
There are no guarantees, no matter what precautions are taken, she adds, but there are still measures that can help assuage tenants’ fears and help them transition to a “new normal.”
The Olive Group’s property managers will welcome tenants back, but will require all people entering its buildings to respect social distancing rules and wear facemasks, DeBacker says. The biggest challenge she foresees ahead is communicating to tenants that these rules are not optional, figuring out how to enforce them and instituting repercussions for not respecting them.
Some states—including Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Iowa—are threatening to cut off unemployment benefits if employees fail to report to work. While this is likely to have the greatest impact on restaurant and retail employees, such mandates add another layer of fear for a populace worried about catching COVID-10 and struggling to make ends meet at the same time.
Being called back to work constitutes “suitable employment” and the employee must accept or the state employment agency can rightfully cut off benefits, says Michael P. Maslanka, assistant professor of law a the University of Texas Dallas College of Law. However, while state employment agencies control unemployment benefits, it is the employers who report to the agencies that the employee has been called back to work.
In this case, Maslanka advises employers to treat their employees like the valued associates that they professed them to be prior to this pandemic. “Give them the benefit of doubt; if they don’t want to come back to the office yet, don’t force them.”
Scott Nelson, CEO of occupier services | global, with real estate services firm Colliers International, agrees, stressing that employers should acknowledge that employees fundamentally are concerned about their health and safety, and act with empathy and compassion. “All employees [should have] the option to return (to the office) when they feel most comfortable.”
In addition, he suggests empowering office workers to take actions for their own protection through new behaviors: let them clean their own environment and grant permission to ask others to follow new wellness protocols. “Employees are primarily concerned about hygiene and cleaning to address health safety concerns,” Nelson says. “They want to know how their employers and landlords will deal with new outbreaks or people who show symptoms.”
Landlords have a vested interest in creating and maintaining a healthy workplace environment, and empowering tenants to protect their own health can help lessen worker anxiety about returning to the office. DeBecker says that landlords can encourage tenants to take responsibility for their own safety by providing them with the tools and flexibility needed to promote wellness in the workplace. Her firm is providing tenants with a “care package” that contains preventive gear, like gloves, thermometers, masks and hand sanitizer.
Employees also have a right to know what preparations their employer and/or landlord has made to ensure the workplace is safe, according to Maslanka. If they do not feel their employer is doing enough and are then fired for not reporting to work and their unemployment benefits are denied, Malanka says there are several retaliatory options available.
- They can appeal the unemployment denial.
- They can file a complaint with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). Under OSHA’s General Duties Cause, all employers have to provide a safe workplace, so if an employee files a complaint, the employer must prove the workplace is safe.
- Employees, except those who are disabled, do not have the right to work remotely, Maslanka notes. In the case of COVID-19, an employee with a weakened immune system qualifies as disabled and an employer refusing to comply is in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
- Finally, under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, when two or more employees agree that their workplace is unsafe—that something bad could happen to them—and are fired for not reporting to work, they can file a claim of discrimination with the National Labor Relations Board.
In making the workplace safe, employers and landlords face new challenges. Because people are used to working in spaces denser than CDC guidelines now recommend, Karen Whitt, president of real estate management services | U.S., with Colliers International, says, “Whether a landlord is looking at an office or a retail center, the space has been optimized for our old habits and patterns; those won’t do anymore.”
“The biggest challenges will likely develop in places where queues form,” she notes. “In many buildings, that will mean reduced elevator occupancies, social distancing in lobbies, and limited capacity for shared conferencing facilities... Landlords will need to carefully evaluate every aspect of the tenant journey and figure out how they can apply distancing and sanitization best practices to their properties.”
Nelson stresses that the two major areas to focus on are social distancing and sanitizing surfaces. To help maintain safe distances, landlords should consider adding markers like footprints, incorporating clear partitions for security of reception staff, instituting occupancy limits in elevators, reorganizing or removing lobby furniture, and placing signage that encourages consistent traffic patterns.
“It will also be important to engage in more aggressive cleaning strategies,” Nelson adds, noting that “high-touch” surfaces like door pulls and elevator buttons should be cleaned multiple times a day. Restrooms and common areas will also require more frequent cleanings, which may mean altering contracts with janitorial providers.
Plus, “These guidelines extend to back-of-house operations, as well, where the frequency of filter changes should increase, and air circulation should be revised according to ASHRAE standards to ensure the same air is not being constantly re-circulated.”
According to Sapin, “As they think about real estate strategy, people are just figuring out what tools could make the workplace safer.” PwC has had conversations with over 50 clients a week about a new digital contact-tracing tool that will be available this month. The tool is an app that runs on a worker’s phone in the background using Bluetooth, WiFi and other ambient signals to monitor which co-workers’ phones it comes in close contact with.
The app works to quickly identify everyone who has been in close contact with a worker who self-reports a positive COVID-19 test, so authorized managers can notify any colleagues who might be at risk. This would theoretically avoid a wider outbreak and eliminated the need to interview all workers to find out who had interactions with the ill employee, according to Sapin.
Under normal circumstances, some employees might consider this a privacy violation, he notes, but in this case, they are likely to feel “it’s a perfectly appropriate step my employer is taking to ensure I’m safe.’”
Architecture and design firm Gensler has also launched a tool called ReRun, which runs occupancy scenarios helping employers apply social distancing guidelines to office seating arrangements.
Office amenities will also likely undergo significant changes, according to Sapin, especially those that involve people congregating. “There will be scaling back on how amenity spaces are used,” he says, noting that employers are likely to limit access so users can maintain an appropriate amount of distance between them and amenities like barista bars and beer taps could be temporarily shuttered.
Whitt suggests some additional protocols for creating and maintaining a safe workplace.
- Employers should make changes to the physical space that will help maintain social distancing, such as raising panels between workstations, limiting occupancy to every other workstation, installing temporary clear screens, removing some chairs from conference rooms, and establishing one-way corridors.
- Office landlords and corporate employers must clearly define what is expected of employees when they return, including maintaining distance, limiting gatherings, wearing masks, taking temperatures, cleanliness when using coffee stations and refrigerators, and taking personal responsibility for safety and workspace hygiene.
- Employers should clearly define and communicate the new expected behaviors through signage, online courses, consistent and frequent email reminders and on-going training.
- Technology should be utilized to educate employees, broadcast messages, monitor occupancy, enable remote work and provide touchless solutions for faucets, door handles and elevators.
- More frequent cleaning procedures should be established and janitorial crews should be instructed on what is to be cleaned every hour and every evening. Employers should provide hand sanitizers throughout office spaces and sanitizing wipes to employees to clean their own workstations. Cleaning should be visible and consistent to develop employee trust and confidence in safety procedures.