After months of self-isolation and uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the country is now looking for ways to make returning to normalcy effective and safe. And one of the main questions on everyone’s mind is, “How do we go back to the workplace?”

For me, as the director of the Safety & Health Department at Burns & McDonnell, finding answers to this question is all too real. Bringing people back together in an office working environment means implementing measures to mitigate risk, thus controlling and limiting the spread of pathogens. But effective protection for all employees requires that everyone plays a role. Clear communication strategies and 100% participation in guidelines will go a long way in making everyone feel safe.

Because there is such a fluid and dynamic environment associated with COVID-19, we also must be constantly analyzing how effective the safety measures we implement are in reducing risk. By doing so, we can more effectively pivot as needed to meet a rapidly changing situation.

Administrative Controls

Today, there is no vaccine or cure for this disease. As such, it’s important that we look closely at the hierarchy of safety controls we can implement to mitigate risk. Administration controls provide an overarching approach to creating and analyzing guidelines. A phased approach to returning to the workplace allows us to utilize certain measures in a more controlled environment, then confirm the effectiveness of those measures and adjust as necessary.

Phased Approach

To begin, our offices plan to bring back between 25% and 30% of the workforce. As stated, this will allow us to see the impact of the controls and process we have put in place before bringing in a larger portion of the workforce.

After 30 days, if it is shown that the measures are effective in reducing risk, we will move to bringing in a larger population, to between 50% and 60%. Again, if that is successful, we can expand to 75% and so on in 30-day increments until the entire workforce has returned to the office.

Because the measures have yet to be proven in mitigating risk, it will be important during this phased approach to ask employees who are considered to be at high risk to refrain from returning to the office until we know the measures are working.


Asking employees to perform self-assessments before coming to the office will help further prevent the spread of disease. Taking one’s temperature before coming to work and confirming it is below the 100.4-degree threshold is the first step in the self-assessment. The self-assessment has three questions to consider:

  1. Do you have a temperature of 100.4 degrees or greater Fahrenheit?
  2. Do you have other symptoms, including:
    • A cough or sore throat?
    • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing?
    • Chills?
    • Muscle pain?
    • New loss of taste or smell?
  3. Have you had close contact, for more than 10 minutes, with an individual who is a confirmed case of COVID-19?

Our main guideline here will simply be: If you’re sick, stay home. Additionally, if you come to work and through the day you begin to feel sick, you must go home. If another employee is identified as being sick, they must be sent home.

Face Covers

Maintaining a 6-foot social distance will be paramount in the return to the office scenario. Face coverings will be required when an employee cannot guarantee that 6-foot distance can be maintained.

Safe Practices

A lot of the responsibility for these guidelines will be on the individual, requiring that everyone respect and follow these guidelines. We will have handwashing and sanitation stations throughout our buildings and use of those will be encouraged. Improved handwashing techniques will be communicated, and face coverings provided.

We also need to be sure we aren’t having assemblies of large groups, and instead utilize the technology we have proven can be effective in holding virtual meetings. Having visitors in the office will be discouraged in the first phase period, to limit exposure.

Going Above and Beyond

There are probably a million things an organization could do, but there are only a few things that have been proven to be effective. If we’re serious about protecting people, then organizations owe it to their people to implement those effective practices to show that they will be protected when returning to the office. 

Safety is first at Burns & McDonnell. Living by this principle means doing all that we can to mitigate risk and protect our employees. Looking for innovative ways to reduce risk is a step in the right direction. An example is placing antimicrobial wraps on commonly contacted surfaces throughout the office to provide long-term protection, such as on door handles and handrails.

Sometimes it’s easy to say, “These things should be done” or “We strongly suggest.” But when we provide instruction in this way, we are stopping short, telling our employees that these measures aren’t mandatory. In this case, however, it is essential that everyone returning to their offices across the country follow the guidelines put in place by their organizations. Only by doing this can we successfully continue our jobs and hinder the further spread of COVID-19.

Jamie Butler has nearly 30 years of experience in the construction industry and serves as the vice president and director of corporate safety and health at Burns & McDonnell.