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Keeping Employees Safe, Secure, and Productive as We Reopen (Webinar)

Posted by Bob Corlett on June 12, 2020

Keeping Employees Safe, Secure, and Productive as we Reopen (Webinar)

I recently joined Heinan Landa, the CEO of Optimal Networks for a webinar. The topic was how to keep employees safe, secure, and productive in various scenarios for office reopening. We discussed a framework for balancing the risk, cost, and intrusiveness of various IT solutions in a work from home (WFH) environment. Our conversation focused on IT security, but that same decision-making framework applies to many aspects of work life now, including how we hire people in the pandemic economy.

HubSpot Video

All of our employees are under stress, so employers must thoughtfully balance how intrusive we are willing to be. We must make very careful tradeoffs when we design new workflows, ask employees to be available for video conferences at home, and when we develop office health and safety protocols for returning to work. Employers must weigh the effectiveness of the action against the cost of it, and the difficulty or intrusiveness of asking someone to do it. Intrusiveness has limits. When our requests become overwhelming, we sacrifice the productivity and well-being of our team. In every decision, employers are sowing seeds. In the coming months employers will harvest increased trust and employee engagement, or decreased productivity and higher employee turnover. 

Reopening is a new kind of executive decision but a template exists for it

As we all grapple with a global health crisis, an economic downturn, and a 400-year overdue reckoning with systemic racism, it’s glaringly obvious that the burdens of the Pandemic Economy are falling disproportionately on communities of color. And while parts of the economy may potentially be able to recover soon, the health crisis and social injustice remain.

Reopening affects every employee and organization differently, and employers have a duty to not make things worse by overlooking these differences. We need to include many voices in the conversation about reopening, discussing these issues from multiple perspectives. Acting in good faith, employers and employees may reach very different conclusions based on the same set of facts (and we should expect plenty of debate over which facts to use).

Most leadership teams struggle with the uncertainty of risk management decisions, and reopening offices creates entirely new issues for Facilities, Finance, HR, and IT professionals. There is no template for this, because every organization has its own culture, value system, and business needs. The decision-making process requires new approaches. And because the process of fully reopening offices may require more than a year, the issues cannot be deferred indefinitely.

Ideally, we would all have a Ouija board and a crystal ball to divine the future or an all-knowing expert we could turn to. Instead, we have ourselves, and I know from experience that listening to our people will serve us well.

There are quite a few parallels between the reopening decision and a good CEO executive search committee hiring process. When an organization selects a new CEO, the search committee is usually drawn from a large group of people with very different lived experiences, different decision-making frameworks, and diverse perspectives. They often work at different stages of their career and come from different organizations. The strength of their decision flows from their critical thinking skills, their diverse perspectives, and good faith attempts to reach consensus. That diversity of thought is precisely what is needed to make the reopening decisions.

Deciding how to make the reopening decisions

In our work with CEO search committees, we’ve learned that building consensus for complex decisions requires that you first decide how the decision will be made, with what information, and by whom. Building consensus takes time and requires trust and transparency. In the reopening conversation, we all need to think carefully about who should have input on the decision, what information will be gathered, and how it will be considered. Then the decision-makers must prioritize what matters most, decide, and communicate why they made the decision. In the end, people who disagree must feel respected in their point of view but accept the inherent fairness of the process. Success requires skill, time, patience, and a level of emotional intelligence that is hard to summon in the current environment.

In a recent survey by McKinley Advisors, there was no consensus across organizations about when to reopen. In complex decisions like these, we cannot follow others, we need to make the decisions ourselves.


So how will you balance the risk, cost, and intrusiveness of asking your employees to return to the office? And who should go back?

The CDC expects employers to ensure a “safe and healthy workplace.” So how will employers create safety protocols that people will follow and trust? Employee safety is a major priority, but is perfect safety the only goal? How will you strike a balance between being safe without being too costly or too intrusive? Employers must decide between solutions with different costs and levels of effectiveness. How do you balance employee safety with the economic viability of the organization (to sustain those jobs), or the ability to achieve your mission (or serve your customers)? Where is the sustainable balancing point?

According to Josh Bersin, “One of the biggest new trends is tools for Attestation. Attestation is a whole business process designed to ask people to ‘attest’ to their symptoms or behaviors.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce offers guidance on how to screen employees. (All this information must be kept confidential and separate from an employee’s personnel file.) According to CDC Guidelines, upon arriving at work, employees should get a temperature and symptom check. Inside the office, desks should be six feet apart. If that isn’t possible, employers should consider erecting plastic shields around desks. Seating should be barred in common areas. And face coverings should be worn at all times. The American Industrial Hygiene Association created an outstanding new Back to Work Safely website offering expert guidance for how to re-open safely. Open office plans are a challenge, so when it comes to office layout, the global design firm Perkins & Will published a remarkable 90-page document detailing everything you need to know about office layout.

OK, so once the office is set up, will your employees willingly be tracked and tested? For offices to be productive, people need to want to work in them. How will they respond when you direct them to take tests, disclose symptoms, don masks and work under the watchful eye of sensors monitoring their temperature or proximity to colleagues? Employers cannot require that employees take an antibody test, but what if employees are unwilling to wear a mask? (You can require it in most cases.)

Of course, not everyone can go back to work in the office yet. To avoid discrimination, we must allow employees to state they are uncomfortable returning to the workplace, without asking whether this is due to age, chronic disease, transportation concerns, or childcare. (This article in Harvard Business Review suggests 8 questions employers should ask about reopening. SmartHR’s Strategic Approach to Reopening also offers useful guidance in their 3 part series).

And then, if employees are willing to return to this odd new office environment, most offices cannot accommodate their entire staff while maintaining safe distancing. Especially if you work in a high rise building. (Although perhaps that elevator ride might not be too risky?) So who decides who “gets to” go back to the office and who should stay home? In this article in Quartz, the authors suggest:

“…the downsides of asking people to argue for a spot in the new, sparsely populated office are apparent, too. Namely, there’s a risk that such a policy could nudge people to share information about their private life that could leave them feeling singled out or overexposed. Or, if people believe that being in the office is ultimately beneficial for their career in the long run because employees who are visible to executives are most likely to be promoted, workers may be incentivized to push for a desk in the elite club they envision is forming at the firm’s headquarters.”

What’s the employer’s obligation now?

Josh Bersin has done some great thinking on this topic. His takeaway is that the employee experience is now heavily weighted toward safely coming to work, as he puts it, “…we’ve moved from a focus on the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy to a laser focus on the bottom.”


Beyond the employee experience, employers might incur legal liability if employees are not provided a safe work environment. The Washington Post interviewed multiple workers’ compensation and insurance experts about the legal issues and how employees might be able to hold businesses accountable. And there are other legal issues involved if employees do not feel safe returning to work. SHRM offers guidance here. (This article in the Wall Street Journal may also be helpful, but you should talk to your lawyer. Most law firms are issuing guidance to employers.) 

The World Health Organization recommends that nonessential workers return when there is a sustained decrease in community transmission, a decreased rate of positive tests, sufficient testing available to detect new outbreaks, and adequate local hospital capacity to accommodate a surge of new cases should that occur.

But before deciding when to reopen your office, perhaps you should decide if you need an office at all.

What job does your office perform?

What purpose does your office serve? What work does it do for you? How does it make your team more productive and effective? How does it make your organization more sustainable? As part of your reopening discussion, perhaps it’s time to consider “firing” (or at least downsizing) your office space.

“About 74% of companies plan to permanently shift at least 5% of their previously on-site workforce to remote positions after the coronavirus crisis subsides, according to a Gartner survey of 317 financial executives from various industries on March 30.”

A Fast Company article notes, “The National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that 37% of all U.S. jobs can be done from home, which represents 46% of all wages. Pre-COVID-19, only 5% of jobs were done from home. So, the question is: once we feel it is safe enough to have a choice, where will we opt to work?”

More than three out of four U.S. human resource executives think more employees will continue to work from home even after the threat of the novel coronavirus subsides, according to a survey by The Conference Board.

A recent USA Today article noted that “Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Twitter – were the first to send their employees home as the virus spread to the U.S. Now they're among the last to return them to the office. Some of their employees might never go back… Such a shift might also amount to a repudiation of the notion that creative work demands corporate campuses reminiscent of college, with free food, ping pong tables, and open office plans designed to encourage unplanned interactions.”

This post sums it up best: “If, in the old world, an office was a form of corporate peacocking — a flashy location in some iconic building with a boutique-hotel level of design for clients, employees, customers, and investors--in the new world, it is becoming a very costly line item…staring down the barrel of a recession, companies are shifting into cost-cutting survival mode — and the huge fixed cost of office space will, for many, be first on the chopping block.”

The productivity question

Does working in your office enhance or reduce productivity? Your mileage may vary. Some people are more productive at home, others do better in the office. Some tasks are better suited to an office than others. There is no one right answer to this. No matter what we decide, we must also acknowledge that our employees were hired with one set of expectations, and employers may not be able to deliver that experience for quite some time. How do we have this conversation with our employees? During the pandemic, we are all actively rewriting the compact we made with our employees (just as our society must renew our social contract with Black Americans).

The “work from home or go to the office” debate begs the question – what is productivity and how should it be measured? By results achieved or by activities performed? I would not recommend trying to mirror typical office workflows and behavior with remote workers. You will miss many of the enduring advantages of remote work.

And let’s not forget the management team. What is the proper role of the supervisor in a blended work environment with some people working in the office and others working from home? Some management behavior can be highly intrusive. The worst example is boss spyware that takes a screenshot from everyone’s laptop every few minutes, or requiring that people leave their cameras on, or requiring that every call is on video (in people’s homes).

As you try to balance the risk, cost, and intrusiveness inherent in your management approach, I recommend you use this time to experiment with a more trusting management style. Give your employees the freedom to complete their work creatively without the pressure of logging their hourly input. A study from the University of Melbourne found that employees who were given more control over areas such as schedule, workflow, and input on strategy were more motivated, engaged, loyal, and mentally well. Focus matters. You might find that your star employees are simply the people who spend more time working on what is important and less time on distractions. This is also a golden opportunity to make progress on gender equity by deliberately reworking policies and practices.

At Staffing Advisors, our approach to remote work is designed to create fewer distractions for remote workers and a better ability to manage outcomes rather than activities. We know that video fatigue affects everyone differently.


The office reopening debate reminds me of what John Muir observed about nature, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." Perhaps with that thought in mind, Austin Beutner, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, acknowledges that reopening schools requires “a delicate dance, with a thousand steps, each connected to the other.”

The reopening decision is only one of many complex decisions that require a subtle and inclusive approach, with more voices being heard, more perspective being offered, and more communications once decisions are made. Only through that inclusive process can employers create a safe, secure, and productive work environment for employees.

Topics: Remote Work, Webinar Recordings