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After two months of working from our home offices (or, more likely, from our kitchen tables), businesses in BC have finally gotten the news they’ve been waiting for: it’s time to begin the process of reopening the economy and getting people back to work. But does ‘back to work’ mean ‘back to normal’? Maybe not.

As we start to return to our respective offices over the next couple of weeks, it may feel less like home sweet home, and more like (to quote Aladdin) a whole new world. And while we don’t know exactly what the post-pandemic workplace will look like, one thing is certain: we’ll need to be adaptable and inventive, creating ways to successfully do business while also keeping the health and safety of our employees as the top priority.

The precautions we take and the decisions we make over the coming weeks as economies and businesses begin to reopen will ultimately determine if the curve that we’ve worked so hard to flatten stays flat, or if we see a new surge of COVID-19 cases in the months that follow.

EASY DOES IT

Hold your horses – let’s make one thing clear, this return to the workplace isn’t something that’s going to happen overnight. The key to successfully reopening the economy is to do it slowly and to do it intelligently.

We know everyone is eager to get out of their houses and start inching closer to something resembling “normality”, but we all need to work together to ensure that we practice extreme caution and make socially responsible decisions that will protect our employees, our businesses and our communities.

PUT YOUR THINKING CAP ON

First things first, you need a plan. This is absolutely not the time to just wing it, employers will need to develop a detailed strategy before they even consider reopening their doors.

Every organization will need to adopt new safety protocols before reopening their workplace, the specifics of these will obviously vary from business to business and industry to industry. Not sure where to begin? We’ve put together a list of some cleanliness and safety strategies to help you get started.

STAGGERED REINTRODUCTION

As tempting as it may be to get the whole gang together again, you’re going to want to reintroduce your employees to the workplace in stages.

A staggered return to the office could mean bringing in a small percentage of your team for the first couple weeks, and then increasing that number slowly as it becomes safe to do so. Another popular option is offering modified work hours, four-day work weeks, or having staff split their time between working in the office and working remotely.

Whatever way you choose to do it, the ultimate goal is to have less people in the office at any given time. And be sure to check to see who actually wants to come in, as some people may have personal reasons for wanting to continue to work from home for a bit longer.

DE-DENSIFY YOUR SPACE

Say sayonara to your open-office workspace (at least for the time being), you’re going to need to keep physical distancing top of mind when deciding on your post-pandemic floorplan.

Create greater distance between desks by physically rearranging them, or by implementing assigned seating, leaving an empty workstation between employees. A good trick is to remove the chair (and even the computer) from the vacant desk to discourage anyone from using it.

And you know those arrows you’ve noticed at the grocery store indicating a one-way aisle? Don’t be surprised if you start seeing those pop up in the workplace as well. This is a super simple, easy way to cut down on the likelihood of employees accidentally bumping into one another as they’re rushing about their day.

ANTI-SOCIAL SOCIAL AREAS

You know all those times you went into the office kitchen to heat up your lunch and it was packed with your hungry co-workers, the line for the microwave six people deep? Well, good news – that shouldn’t be a problem anymore, as organizations will need to come up with a plan to reduce occupancy in high-traffic areas.

For example, having scheduled lunch and break times is a great way to minimize congestion in those shared spaces. If your boardroom can seat fifteen, consider implementing a policy allowing only a small number of people to meet at any given time.

Create rules surrounding elevator, copy room and shared bathroom etiquette as well. Depending on the size of your space, you may need to implement a one-at-a-time rule, and ask your employees to practice patience while waiting for their turn.

If you’ll be allowing non-employees to visit your office for meetings or consultations, it can be helpful to temporarily remove all furniture (as well as magazines, pens, etc.) from reception and make it clear that no one is to gather in that area.

MAKE IT CLEAR, KEEP IT CLEAN

If you thought you were pretty neat and tidy before, get ready to shift that into overdrive. Forget coffee breaks, now we’re doing hand-washing breaks. Okay, okay. Maybe not quite that extreme (yes, you can still have your coffee), but you will need to be extra vigilant about keeping your workspace as clean as humanly possible.

Put signage up throughout the office reminding people about physical distancing, hand washing and other important safety protocols. Send out regular emails to staff as well, keeping them up to date on new and changing policies.

Have a discussion with your building manager about their strategy for ensuring a safe and sanitary environment for tenants who are returning to work. For most of us, we’re used to having a quick clean of our office done in the evening, after everybody’s gone home for the day, but that won’t be enough anymore.

You’ll want to be as obvious and intentional as possible with cleaning throughout the day and ensuring your employees can see the efforts being made to keep them safe. Wipe down high-traffic areas (think doorknobs and elevator buttons) and communal spaces constantly and have hand sanitizer EVERYWHERE (if you can find it, that is).

A MORE VIRTUAL WORKPLACE, PERMANENTLY?

For two months, Canadians have been working from home. For many of us, remote work was a foreign concept. For many employers, remote work was their worst nightmare.

As the weeks passed, employees became comfortable, finding their groove and settling in to working from home. And employers? For the most part, they’ve been wowed by how productive, motivated and communicative their teams can be in a remote work setting. So, now that we’re easing back into “normalcy”, does that mean we should forget about all the successes we had working from the comfort of our homes? Heck no.

While it’s likely not feasible to keep your entire staff working remotely full-time, this is the perfect opportunity to experiment with implementing more permanent WFH options. Finding that balance between a virtual and an in-person workspace is going to be the next challenge for an employer.

This ‘balance’ will look different depending on the organization. It may mean giving employees the choice between remote and in-office work, or a split workweek. Perhaps some employers will continue to have their staff hold in-person meetings with clients, while others will allow these to be done virtually.

KEEP TALKING

In a remote work environment, good communication is essential. During COVID-19, employers and managers have had to increase communication both to the company as a whole and to the individuals on their respective teams. Certainly, we’ve all learned how important it is to be clear, consistent and transparent, especially in times of crisis. As your employees return to the workplace, this level of communication has to continue.

No two employees have had the same experience during the pandemic. While some may be over-the-moon to return to the office, others may be anxious, nervous, or downright afraid. Speak to them directly to gauge how they’re feeling, ask open-ended questions and ensure, above everything, that you practice empathy.

Prepare to be flexible and work with each member of your team to come up with a plan for returning to the office that they’re comfortable with. Your staff need to know, without a doubt, that you care about their safety and wellbeing and are committed to helping them be successful in the ‘new world of work’.

Safety guidelines for businesses will undoubtedly change over time and it’s the responsibility of an employer to stay up to date and follow government recommendations and restrictions, and to do everything in their power to ensure our community is protected. Good luck to everyone as we take this first step towards reopening British Columbia (with our friends in Ontario hopefully soon to follow)!

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