Going from Shelter-In-Place to Return-To-Work

In talking with many IVP portfolio executives in the last weeks, most acknowledge that COVID-19 has thrown them into a remote work future that they had envisioned, but had envisioned unfolding over years and not days. The good news is that we hear things like “team collaboration is at an all-time high” and “digital tools have made this less disruptive than we would have thought” and “employees, across ranks, have stepped up in ways we’ve never seen before.” This is leading many business leaders to think more about permanent changes that may be possible – reducing real estate footprint, embracing a distributed culture, allowing flexible hours, etc.

Today we are all in shelter-in-place, but that could change soon and better to get ahead of it and be prepared. We have pulled together our thoughts and suggestions for what to do and think about now to get ready for welcoming smiling (anxious?) faces back into the physical office.

We put this together because we see this as a time of tremendous growth for our portfolio companies and for the entire entrepreneurial ecosystem and the more we, at IVP, can do to help these companies, the more time left for innovators to focus on innovation and how we can come out of this uncertain time even stronger.

What follows is a handful of themes to consider:

Timing: None of us know the exact day our cities and countries will reopen but we do know that employees will likely return to work in different phases, all predicated on what the local and national leaders declare and when schools and daycares are back in session. How should one think about phasing employees back to physical offices:

  • Phases: We expect there to be distinct phases when it is allowed, when it is encouraged, and when we are back to it being expected. For each, it will depend on personal circumstances — children at home, functional group, physical location in the office, % of one’s team back in the office, pre-existing conditions, etc. Here are a few things to consider:
    • Interest: who wants to return? Allow volunteers to return first.
    • Floor plan location: Map out which workspaces are socially-distanced enough to be feasible for occupancy. See the physical space considerations below.
    • Functional group: Are some groups more reliant on the office? (e.g. creative teams, teams more reliant on paper, teams tied to the physical space like office managers)
    • Success so far: Take time to understand which teams are faring well in the remote environment and consider allowing them to continue longer-term remote work.
    • Balance: Is there a way to bring back a similar percentage of employees from each department to encourage cross-team collaboration?
    • Intervals: Some companies have brainstormed the idea of bringing employees back in intervals, with a certain #/% returning to work in set intervals (e.g. two weeks).
    • Antibodies: On the positive side, people who have developed antibodies, as confirmed via tests, can be safely considered for the early returners.
    • Transportation: Each employee has different routines for getting to work, which require different levels of social proximity.
  • The above relates to employees only. Visitors, vendors, on-site meetings with clients, and partners will all need to be discussed after initial employees have reported in person to physical offices. Set up a framework upfront for how that will be decided and what triggers (municipal changes, executive orders, etc.) will initiate new phases.

Physical space: Social distancing is not conducive to most office and work settings, with workspaces, desks, and cubicles closer together than the suggested 6 feet apart guidance. With this in mind, a few things to consider, none perfect:

  • Prioritize: Prioritize office space for teams or departments that most need access to the office. This could be teams with unique office needs (supplies, etc.), with compromised WFH situations, or that rely most on in-person communication.
  • Split teams: Deploy an A and B team strategy, adopting more of a shift strategy with the different groups not overlapping. We have received anecdotal evidence that employees struggle with compliance, so proceed with caution.
  • Be flexible: Utilize flexible working practices to your advantage. Allow those who seek to return, to return, and those who value the home flexibility to stay home.
  • Common space: Protocols will need to change regarding common spaces like meeting rooms, kitchen and entry areas, gyms, etc. Half-occupancy for meeting rooms has been suggested as a starting point. If meeting rooms are deemed closed, remove chairs to discourage gathering.
  • Property management: Converse with one’s property manager and other tenants in the building, especially as it relates to common spaces, elevators, lobbies, shared security personnel, etc. HVAC is one often-highlighted concern and whether it is possible to increase airflow or increase air filtering.

Interpersonal: These are anxious and uncertain times for all and will lead to disagreements likely not seen before. What if individuals feel unsafe about social conduct in the office? Are others too close? Are individuals not perceived as following hygienic practices? Not taking social distancing seriously?

  • Dealing with new concerns: Consider setting up new avenues for anonymous feedback, concerns, other suggestions as people return to work and find they have concerns never before experienced. Set up the process before returning to encourage transparency and feedback. Indicate clearly with whom employees should speak if they have concerns about inappropriate office conduct. Discourage gossip and encourage open reporting to the appropriate individual(s).
  • Tolerances: Each individual will have different tolerances for being in larger meetings, commuting, eating company-provided food, etc. Set clear expectations for what the company is doing to support a healthy work environment and what can reasonably be expected back from employees.
  • Pulse surveys: Show your employees that you are listening and welcome their feedback. Many companies already do regular surveys but now may be a good time to experiment.

Privacy: This is an area where each company should consult experts about what you can and cannot ask your employees re: health information, symptoms, prior infection, etc. HIPAA generally prohibits asking employees about their health and companies have been conditioned to this reality. As a result of COVID-19 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission confirmed that employers do have the right to request some health information from workers during the COVID-19 outbreak.

  • EEOC language, verbatim: “During a pandemic, ADA-covered employers may ask such employees if they are experiencing symptoms of the pandemic virus. For COVID-19, these include symptoms such as fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, or sore throat. Employers must maintain all information about employee illness as a confidential medical record in compliance with the ADA.”
  • Attendance: One consistent suggestion we are hearing is to document employee attendance in the office to ensure any potential exposure can be properly traced. This may already be done with badges pre-COVID-19. Set clear expectations that employee attendance in the office will be documented for this reason.
  • Perceived disadvantage: Get ahead of the potential for perceived disadvantage, be it for older employees, those with pre-existing conditions, or those with elderly family at home. Employees may not feel comfortable sharing their unique circumstances but feel pressure to return to work having not disclosed. Tactics like building trust with employees, being sincere in extended timelines, offering confidential lines of communication with HR, etc. are all ways to mitigate this issue.
  • Direct take: See the following piece for a clear explanation of when employees can return to work following COVID-19 symptoms vs. illness vs. illness requiring hospitalization, etc.

Transportation: In order to work in an office, all of your employees have to travel from point A to point B. Not all routes are considered equal, be it on foot in the open air, via personal car, via shared ride service like Uber and Lyft, or via more congested forms of public transportation such as buses and trains. With that in mind, a few considerations:

  • Acknowledge the problem: Explicitly call out that leaders understand the disparity in commuting practices and it is something the team is considering. See section on a phased return to work and how travel considerations can play into each person’s personal timing.
  • Staggered start times: “Rush hour” certainly applies on municipal transportation, be it trains, buses, trolley cars, subways, etc. Get creative about when people are expected to arrive and depart the office in order to avoid peak commuting times.
  • Parking: With more employees driving personal cars to work consider in advance parking options, parking reimbursement, safety as it relates to walking to/from parking garages, etc.

Personal Protective Equipment: Cities and counties differ regarding what level of personal protective equipment is required when in public settings. Before asking employees to return to work, companies should be in a position to provide the necessary equipment. Things to consider include:

  • Masks: These will vary from mandatory to recommended, to null. We recommend ordering sooner to ensure having on hand. Masks can be used as a preventative measure in more crowded office settings, around company-provided meals, etc.
  • Gloves: So far gloves are not required in most municipal orders but can be effective in certain situations. Something to consider having on hand (pun intended!).
  • Infrared thermometers: Based on early reports, many companies have found this invasive, inconsistent, and time-consuming. If the environment still calls for temperature-checking, companies may continue to encourage WFH. See the privacy section for extra considerations here.
  • Other: In addition to the obvious items like hand sanitizer, soap, wipes, etc. experts have also highlighted: air purifiers and temporary dividers for critical areas of interaction.

Food, meals: One key gathering time and place for employees is around meals, often company-provided. Ensuring hygiene around food stations and utensils has always been a top concern and even more so now. A handful of considerations that we’ve heard from companies:

  • Meals: We have seen companies move to individually wrapped meals and snacks instead of bulk or family-style preparations.
  • Supplies: Many companies plan to move to disposable plates or plan to require dishwasher cycles for any non-disposable plates (instead of hand-washing).
  • Reevaluating perks: In the near term, many companies may reevaluate perks like family-style food. One option is to encourage employees to support local businesses and pick up take-out instead. Frequent employee surveys can surface where employees are pleased vs. frustrated.

Sanitation: Nightly cleaning is the norm for most companies but this may not be deemed enough during the interim period after people return to work and before a vaccine is readily available.

  • Deep cleaning: Many companies are opting to perform official deep-cleaning of their physical space before returning to work and on some regular cadence. One company plans to be WFH every Friday to allow for proper cleaning of the facilities weekly. This will differ for office locations vs. more communal manufacturing facilities, warehouses, etc.
  • Regular cleaning cadence: Companies are assuming that office spaces will be cleaned more regularly with potential for midday cleaning or ongoing cleaning of meeting spaces and communal spaces as people come and go.
  • Hygiene minutiae: In response to concerns about often-handled items like door handles, coffee machine buttons, fridge doors, Envoy terminals, companies have suggested installing foot pulls for doors, leaving interior doors default open where secure to do so, adopting hands-free soap dispensers, removing superfluous kitchen appliances, etc. This will likely be an evolving process as teams realize what surfaces are most prone to spreading germs.
  • Packages: Some companies are pushing to minimize personal packages to the office where possible, in order to minimize package handling by multiple parties.

Executive considerations: This resource is intended to be mainly tactical for helping teams get their heads around RTW. In addition, the abrupt shift in “normal” has brought other considerations to the forefront for executive teams. We touch on a few themes that we are repeatedly hearing:

  • Designate a COVID-19 Task Force or Crisis Management Team: This should include members of human relations, facilities, members of the executive staff, etc. and should help ensure you have a unified plan for when it comes time to finalize and implement a RTW mode.
    • Things to codify: What if an employee contracts the virus post-RTW? This may include actions such as sending everybody home, deep-cleaning, sending out company-wide communication, contact-tracing, requiring self-isolation, etc.
    • Start planning: Many experts expect that this SIP period will be not the first and only but the first of multiple, at least until a vaccine is complete and broadly available. Start planning for potential future closures by developing a preparedness and response plan. What will trigger a closure? How will the information be shared?
  • Real estate footprint: If executives are often finding that this new remote, distributed setup is working better than previously thought, it follows that remote working may actually be more optimal or preferred for a subset of the workforce. If so, executives should ask themselves: is there rationalizing of real estate square footage that could reduce spend and also increase employee morale?
  • Healthcare budgeting: We have seen companies begin to build in increased health care costs (as a result of both COVID-19 testing and treatment, and an uptick in mental health needs.) This is something for executive teams to assess and consider now, before the next open enrollment cycle.
  • Executive compensation: Most companies are making adjustments to goals and KPIs. For any quarterly bonus programs, some companies have already navigated adjustments. Consider combining Q2 and Q3 goals and making payouts for this combined goal to be paid at the end of Q3. Annual goals will also need to be reassessed. For heavily impacted companies, senior leaders may need to consider a thoughtful communication strategy letting employees know how bonuses will be impacted and/or that there may not be bonuses in 2020.

Find more resources at ivp.com/covid