After months of lockdown, millions of cases, and hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide, the worst of the coronavirus crisis may have passed. Much of the world is looking to reopen. In the economic realm, more than 36 million U.S. jobs have already been lost, and the American economy shrank by 4.8% during the first quarter of 2020.
The road to recovery will be long, and will be eased neither by the need for social distancing rules and guidelines that will remain until a vaccine is developed, nor by consumer reluctance to spend in the face of a possible second wave of the virus.
For business owners and managers, the question of when and how to reopen offices is a difficult one, and very much a judgment call. Reopen too early, and your employees risk infection in a still-elevated COVID-19 environment. Reopen too late, and the continued losses from reduced productivity could prove disastrous. These five tips will help you get your business back to a semblance of normality without endangering your employees.
1. Bring back employees gradually and follow guidelines.
The fact that the formal coronavirus lockdown has been lifted doesn't mean that all of your employees should be in the office tomorrow morning. In the beginning, ask select personnel to come in. Give them time to become accustomed to new arrangements – masks, staggered lunch breaks, stricter cleaning regimens, etc. – and then gradually bring more groups in.
Employees who have recovered from the virus and test positive for antibodies should be among the first to come back, while workers over 60 and those with underlying conditions such as cardiac issues or COPD should work from home while the virus threat continues. All the while, make sure to implement government rules and guidelines regarding social distancing (such as changing the office layout to keep employees at least 6 feet apart at all times) and provide alcohol-based hand sanitizers and other disinfectants in plentiful supply near workstations.
Once the happy day arrives when the local and national virus threat seems to have dwindled, your business should still strive to apply social distancing measures at the office, even if it's not a legal requirement anymore. The threat of a second wave of the disease is very real, and continued caution can reduce its potential deadliness. As always in epidemics, the government can only accomplish so much alone. Individuals and businesses have to do their part.
2. Consider changing work schedules.
Implementing a rotating schedule will reduce the number of employees in your office at any one time, reducing the risk of infections. Staggering the times that people report to work will allow them to also stagger their breaks and lunches, reducing the time they spend together in small break rooms, elevators, stairways, walkways, etc.
Rotating teams with scheduled office days is another viable option. You could have some teams work in the office while others work from home on a rotating schedule. This could also help with child care – with schools and day cares still closed, allowing employees to spend more time at home can ease the burden of finding somewhere for their children to go.
3. Accelerate your company's digital transition.
The current pandemic has pushed the world toward a greater acceptance of remote work. Companies large and small, many of which had never had remote work as a policy before, were suddenly forced to adopt it overnight. The experiment has proven surprisingly successful for many – productivity remained relatively high despite many workers finding remote work difficult. It seems certain that remote work options will remain a business reality for many companies even when COVID-19 is not a significant factor.
Your business's digital transition should not be limited to remote work, however. You should also implement other solutions enabled by the IT revolution, such as paperless offices and online project management platforms, if you haven't already. The pandemic has shown that much of traditional office work is obsolete and unnecessary – use these lessons to your advantage.
4. Rebuild office morale.
Chances are that your employees' morale and productivity have taken a significant hit during the downturn. The global emergency has made many people feel anxious, depressed and fearful. Be mindful of your employees' emotional needs and the emotional toll of the pandemic, including these factors:
- The mental and emotional strain of living through a global emergency on a scale not seen since the Spanish flu
- Concern for their own health and the health and wellbeing of their loved ones
- Guilt about not keeping up with certain responsibilities while in quarantine
- Lack of in-person contact with their friends, family and colleagues
- Fear of being laid off or terminated
The end of the mandatory quarantine and a return to a normal work life offer a form of release, but you and your team managers should know that worker morale will almost certainly be volatile for a long time. This is where employee engagement solutions like Clarity Wave could help. In a data-driven world, keeping track of your workforce's morale is critical to implementing policies to improve it and increase business results.
5. Keep remote work as an option.
While the immediate danger from COVID-19 seems to have eased, expectations are that the virus will continue to be a threat until a vaccine is developed and brought to bear – and that isn't expected for at least another year. Until then, governments may intermittently reintroduce restrictions as the number of new cases fluctuates. For this reason, it will be wise to keep remote work policies in place and even partially implemented, minimizing the disruption of a possible new lockdown. This can take place through formal scheduling practices, or by allowing people to work from home when they feel even marginally ill or unsafe.
This isn't the only reason you should keep remote work as an option, however. The flexibility it provides is key to increasing your employees' satisfaction and quality of life (and thus their productivity, as these are closely linked). Many companies have been reluctant to take advantage of the flexibility remote work offers. Instead, they focus on their loss of control and the risks of a loosely managed workforce. Employees, however, greatly appreciate the increased work-life balance and do a better job as a result.
Increased remote work adoption may well turn out to be one of the most enduring legacies of this pandemic from an employee perspective. If you make these gains permanent, your workers will thank you. So will your profits.
Whatever your reasons for doing it, keeping remote work capacity and protocols fresh can only be an asset in a world that may never go back to how things were.
Companies have faced unprecedented challenges during the current pandemic. While many offices have been able to take advantage of remote work options, a return to normal operations promises higher productivity and greater ease of management. The lifting of the quarantine should be welcomed. Despite this, all companies should be aware that they face a long and stony road ahead to return to their pre-COVID output and profitability. As always, a good plan is crucial.