It seems fair to say there is a lot of will to return to something that resembles routine business. As some cities and states have begun loosening their stay-at-home orders, more organizations are contemplating reopening and reconvening.

Finding safe, responsible ways to do so that still protect and reassure everyone from employees and partners to customers is a tricky needle to thread. It will involve careful consideration, calculation and calibration. Progressive leaders are developing plans that will help everyone adjust.

A sensible strategy for rebuilding an effective office environment starts with a plan, but its success will depend on follow-through in implementation and evaluation along the way.

Pliable Planning

The pandemic situation remains dynamic and fluid, which can make it difficult to know which procedures to put in place or when. Responsible organizations are gathering information from numerous sources, including public health officials and state health departments, as well as comparing best practices with business partners and peers.

All that input feeds into careful planning that recognizes the fluidity of the situation. For businesses and other organizations with operations in multiple regions or even around the world, it becomes even more important to avoid making plans that are too rigid, too one-size-fits-all. A good plan is adaptable enough to accommodate local considerations. Identifying the right metrics helps inform staging strategies.

Employees are another valuable source of feedback that can help shape plans. Online surveys of attitudes can serve as an important check of whether management’s expectations align with reasonable employee concerns. The surveys also might uncover factors or complications that had not been considered — or given sufficient weight — in planning.

Incremental Implementation

Once employees begin returning to the office environment, likely in stages, strategies for social distancing will remain as important as they were in the days before so many organizations shifted to remote working. Limiting the number of personnel in areas, providing sufficient spacing and minimizing unnecessary gatherings should help protect individuals and reinforce trust.

Having adequate supplies of masks and sanitizer, or other appropriate personal protective equipment, will continue to be vital to protect the health of those converging in the office. Using antimicrobial wraps for doors in high-traffic areas and other frequently touched surfaces also can help keep people safe.

Cleanliness and good hygiene are fundamental to health and safety amid any virus, not just during this pandemic. Constant, consistent reminders help reinforce their importance.

Employees should be encouraged to perform regular self-assessments, asking themselves whether they honestly feel well enough to work in the office or if they should stay home. There might not be a specific tipping point — a certain temperature, the presence of a cough — but employees should feel empowered to make the right decision for themselves and their colleagues.

This assessment is a simple step that everyone should probably do regularly anyway, but with increased awareness today of others around us and how our choices affect others, perhaps any stigma or reluctance to “call in sick” has waned.

Mindful Monitoring

Adaptability was critical to developing plans to return to the office. It will remain important in the near term, given continuing uncertainty about how the pandemic will play out.

Organizations will need to continue watching what’s happening elsewhere as more businesses reopen. How are their reopening strategies paying off? Is the community experiencing any upticks in illnesses as stay-at-home restrictions are relaxed? Is the company?

These may not be easy answers to obtain, but keeping them in mind will help management maintain a flexible mindset. Arguably, the only absolute should be the commitment to safety.

Once again, employees might be one of the most valuable sources of on-site feedback. Once the initial wave or two has reentered the office environment and begun reacclimating, they can be a figurative temperature gauge. Surveys or informal town hall-type conversations can serve as a safety release valve, identifying what’s working and what isn’t.

Physical separation has been a vital tool in slowing the spread of COVID-19, and the return to proximity will take some adjustment after people have spent so much time interacting with extreme caution. Engaging in continual conversation will communicate respect and engender reassurance. Those will be invaluable commodities in rebuilding and maintaining an effective office environment.

 

A deep commitment to prioritizing safety is fundamental to success, and follow-through is critical to protecting lives every day.

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Renita Mollman is chief administrative officer at Burns & McDonnell. She oversees all corporate services and has been instrumental in creating the firm’s COVID-19 response team.