Post COVID-19 Return to Office: How to Cope with Spikes

By Dave Clifton
Content Strategy Specialist
SpaceIQ

As of November 2020, the United States was riding the third wave of COVID-19 to new highs in daily positive cases. Or rather, the third surge of the first wave. Almost one year into the pandemic and it continues to spread unchecked. It’s causing disruptions for businesses at every level—especially for those hoping for a post COVID-19 return to office work. 

Many companies chose to open up their workplaces in late August during a downtrend in cases. Unfortunately, positive tests ticked up again in late September and have been on the rise ever since. This has spurred a return to remote work for many companies, while others are hunkering down to weather what appears to be a pandemic ready to surge into 2021. However they’re handling it, companies face many uncertainties and no small number of frustrations as they struggle to predict and plan for the pandemic. 

Is the workplace safe right now?

During the August bout of business reopening, many employees expressed concern over returning to the workplace for fear of a spike in cases. These fears are at a head—although not because of the workplace. In fact, there are few workplace hotspots reported. Experts attribute the uncontrolled rise in cases to the fact that “lockdown measures have lifted, more people are spending time indoors as weather gets cold, residents are feeling fatigued by safety measures, and cases never dropped sufficiently.”

Workplaces may in fact be safer than normal due to the stringent policies adopted at the outset of the pandemic. At-home self-assessments, mask mandates, workplace distancing, increased janitorial measures, and distant desking concepts combine to keep transmission opportunities low in the workplace. 

How to cope with spikes

Even if an employee doesn’t catch COVID-19 in the workplace, it doesn’t mean that workplace isn’t affected. Space utilization falls as more employees stay home. Spaces may be off-limits for disinfection after an employee tests positive. Other employees may need to self-quarantine in lieu of a positive test, due to the virus’ incubation period. These factors and countless others affect the workplace and make it more difficult to mount a successful return to work strategy. 

To cope with uncertainty, employers need to create stability. Just as they adopted new cleaning and social standards to help employees safely return to the office post COVID-19, companies also need to institute policies that drive predictable results. Here are some examples:

  • A hoteling policy allows employers to reorganize their workplace to optimize space utilization, control occupancy, and create contact tracing standards. 
  • Create a rolling schedule that separates employees into in-office and at-home groups, rotating bi-weekly to preserve a 14-day buffer in the event of a positive or false-positive.
  • Build in standards and protocols for each workspace that govern which employees can use them, when, and for how long, to dictate space utilization habits. 
  • Restructure the workplace to repurpose shared spaces into hoteling stations or single-person workstations, compliant with social distancing standards. 

To create predictability and certainty in their workplaces, employers need to embrace flexible work concepts within the context of a well-governed framework. This means managing hotel desks with office hoteling software or pre-scheduling workplace sanitization tasks as employees book spaces. A return to work that’s structured and managed is necessary to combat spikes in COVID-19 cases and the disruption that comes with them. 

Consider employee fears and frustrations

Even the best desking policy or the most thorough cleaning standards aren’t enough to quell employee fears about COVID-19. To assuage those fears and promote a safe, productive, comfortable return to work, employers need to be transparent in their efforts. 

  • Show employees exactly what changes you’ve made to accommodate them
  • Explain in specific detail how these changes promote safety and reduce risk
  • Lay out protocols for how contact tracing and employee privacy factor in
  • Recognize the severity of COVID-19 and empathize with concerned employees
  • Don’t dismiss fears or concerns; address them specifically and thoroughly

Ultimately, some employees will not feel comfortable with a return to work, no matter how broad your precautions are. If at all possible, find alternative work solutions for these individuals. If remote work isn’t possible, work to accommodate them in-house in as many ways as possible. 

Get back into the swing of things

Regardless of employee trepidation or rising COVID-19 cases, a return to work will take time. After working remotely for months or flexing back-and-forth between the office and remote work, employees need time to reset and settle themselves back into some semblance of a “normal” work environment. Whether it’s the one they enjoyed before COVID-19 or a “new norm” brought on by the pandemic, a post COVID-19 return to office work will take time. 

Read Next: Workplace COVID-19 Resources

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