How should we open up the office again?

5 key questions answered on the return to work

How should we open up the office again?

In pre-COVID time, opening the office was usually pretty straightforward.

But as the second wave of coronavirus rolls in, HR professionals have their hands full reopening workplaces, while maintaining health and safety.

Canadian HR Reporter spoke with Chris Montigny, partner and consultant at HR Atlantic, a Halifax and Charlottetown HR consultancy, on the best ways to safely and effectively bring workers back into the office.

Q: What are the physical issues that need to be addressed?

A: “We reopened our office and the first thing that we had to do is, in our jurisdiction, you have to create a return-to-work plan; it’s a requirement of our public health obligations. That involved mapping out how will the office function because where before a boardroom could hold 20 people, now we’re not going to be permitted to have 20 people in that room.

“We looked at each room and figured out how many people can safely be in there. As an example, our kitchen is where we meet and get coffees [but] because of its dimensions, it’s got a physical limit of two people. That’s a big change. We’re not a large organization but we would have pizza Fridays and now we can’t have those pizza Fridays in the kitchen anymore.

You’ll have to look at your reception or front office space, where customers may find themselves more often, and boardrooms or meeting rooms. Oftentimes, they need to be reconfigured and that often is a gutting: you’re pulling chairs out and putting physical limits on how many people can safely be in a room. 

“Also, you’re turning your mind to hotspots like elevators; bottlenecks like the reception area. How are we going to move people safely through that area? We’ve installed Plexiglass barriers around our reception, and have reoriented our lobby area to allow people to sit comfortably but not be too close to people.

Chris Montigny

“The second thing is an increase in access to PPE; we’ve installed hand sanitizer stations throughout our office space. There’s an automatic hand sanitizer and our expectation is when guests come to our office, they’ll sanitize their hands, and we have access to masks and can provide those as needed.

Q: What do employers have to think about in terms of scheduling?

A: “We’ve staggered some of our admin teams to come in at different times to allow extra coverage during non-critical periods and to minimize the number of people that we have in the office. It’s to minimize people coming in at the bottleneck, the entry points for our business so they’re not all coming in at the same time.

“At least half of our team works from home at any one given time. Some of our admin staff, it’s more challenging for them to be at home and so some employees, the expectation is for them to be physically present. To accommodate that, we’ve gone through the roster, and identified which tasks can be done remotely.

“We’ve had conversations with our teams on what their preferences are, with the recognition that we still need the work to be done and if that can be done remotely, and you’re comfortable working remotely, we’ll support that.”

Q: What are best practices in communicating to employees?

A: “We’ve tied ourselves up in into knots to try and over-communicate. It’s really important that you’re always engaging your staff. We were able to do a lot of one-on-one conversations; we were able to reach out to a lot of people directly and ask them their needs.

“We also had a number of staff meetings, some of which were held virtually, and some were a combination of virtual and in-person. We’d be walking through updates, reminding people their health is important and if they’re worried about being expected to do things that are uncomfortable, they need to be communicating that to us, so that we can work with them to solve that problem.

“We’ve also had staff meetings to see how staff are doing and see how they’re getting along, trying to keep people connected to the organization. There’s still that connection with the workplace, and there’s still a relationship that’s positive and productive.

“It’s also OK to communicate that there probably will be modifications in the process as we learn that things might need to be tweaked a little bit and to be receptive to the organization changing its plan.”

And earlier survey found that  many people just don't want to come back to work, even if they feel safe.

Q: What happens if someone in the workplace contracts COVID?

A: “What we’ve been doing is contact tracing. External people come in, we ask them to give us their name and telephone number so that if something happened, we could quickly trace back and let anyone know that they could be potentially exposed.

“If someone at our workplace gets ill with COVID, our policy is that they would comply with public health directions. We would front sick leave if necessary. If someone was out of sick time, we would top up from a previous year but it’s not something we would normally do.

“To recognize these are unusual circumstances, we would bend the rules so that our staff would have the comfort of not feeling they’d have to come into work [and] potentially exposing other people to risk.”

Q: What is the role of HR?

A: “As people come back to work, HR is going to have to work hard on dealing with people who are uncomfortable or maybe uncertain about returning to workplace especially because they’ve been absent since sometime in March.

“It’s important that HR communicate with staff that the employer is taking this seriously, the employer’s engaged, and things will be different. People don’t like change, so [it’s about] making sure that we’re communicating what the new office plan looks like, how seating arrangements may have changed, how business meeting rooms may be smaller.”

Previously, Canadian HR Reporter talked to an expert about how to deal with flu season during the pandemic.

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