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Are tech workers ever going back to the office?

Cathy Reisenwitz

by Cathy Reisenwitz on May 28, 2020

As many states open up parts of their economies with restrictions, the 30% or so of American workers who can work from home full-time are wondering when, where, how, and whether they are ever going back to the office.

For most Twitter employees, the answer is never, unless they want to. Google, Facebook, and Zillow recently told their employees that they could continue to work from home until 2021. But Google has also abandoned its plans to lease more than two million square feet of office space. Nationwide Insurance has closed five of its offices, turning 4,000 employees into permanent telecommuters. Morgan Stanley intends to maintain “much less real estate,” said CEO James Gorman. And SF real estate startup Culdesac is relinquishing its San Francisco headquarters. “Remote work is going great for us,” tweeted co-founder Ryan Johnson.

So what’s next for American businesses that are still operating but have gone remote for COVID-19? When will it be safe to head back to the office? When we can go back, will workers want to? And how can businesses protect the workers who do come back. Let’s dig in.

When will it be safe to go back to the office?

The CDC recently announced that it’s safe for workers who have recovered from the virus to go back to work as long as they don’t have symptoms, take their temperature twice per day, practice physical distancing, and mask up.

But allowing more people to go back to work will likely mean more infections and deaths. The question is whether the rates will tick up slightly or will crest into a deadly “second wave.” In early May, the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicted that 135,000 Americans could die by early August. But already as of late May coronavirus has claimed more than 100,000 American lives.

Predictions are difficult because they depend on factors still in flux, such as how much testing, PPE, contact tracing, mask requirements, and other preventative measures states can roll out.

While many states, along with Spain and Wuhan, are getting workers in some sectors back to their jobs, risks remain. Infections in the US are still increasing, with more than 20,000 new infections per day.

One of the biggest barriers to safe reopening is that between 25 and 50% of people who get the virus never develop symptoms but are contagious. Even if you do develop symptoms, you can transmit the virus for at least two days before they show up. So telling sick people to stay home doesn’t offer anything close to full protection.

Opening your office will increase infection rates unless you know who’s vulnerable to infection and only allow people who aren’t at risk to come in. People who have already been exposed to the virus may be able to head back to the office without much risk to themselves or others. A serologic (antibody) test will show whether you’ve had coronavirus by looking for antibodies in your blood that your body produced to fight off COVID-19. According to Harvard, “If you never had symptoms or your symptoms completely resolved, a positive serologic test likely indicates that you have some protection from reinfection (for at least a while) and are unlikely to be contagious.”

While that’s helpful, Harvard cites estimates that just 3% of Americans are likely to have antibodies, which you develop when you are exposed to the virus and fight it off. Another hitch is that many of the serologic tests on the market aren’t particularly accurate. Plus, we don’t yet know how much protection previous infection provides, or for how long.

“Do not expect your risk goes down to zero,” no matter what precautions you take, said Dr. Rajneesh Behal, an internal medicine physician and the chief quality officer of One Medical.

Do remote workers want to go back to the office?

Many people are itching to head back into the office. We found that remote work is leading to more meetings and longer hours for many workers. Researchers have found evidence that isolated workers have more trouble problem solving and being creative than their in-office peers. Not to mention the loneliness and boredom some experience when working remotely.

On the other hand, according to Gallup, nearly 60% of Americans who are currently working from home would prefer to work remotely “as much as possible” even after they can go back and just 40% are excited to head back to the office.

“Working from home is a great thing for the company and for the employees, who don’t want to get back in cars and commute for two hours,” Joan Burke, chief people officer at DocuSign told the NYT. “That’s lost productivity. I see it happening way more often in the future.”

“Our bias against working from home has been completely exploded,” Dan Spaulding, Zillow’s chief people officer, said. Zillow is “not seeing any discernible drop in productivity.”

How to protect your workers

The CDC, OSHA, and state public health authorities have offered guidelines for employers on how to keep employees safe. Unfortunately, the guidelines are vague, suggesting employers clean surfaces “frequently” and “increase ventilation rates” rather than spelling out how often to clean surfaces or specification for a safer HVAC system. The CDC is still editing a 17-page document with more specific guidelines for businesses. Businesses may have to delay opening further if there’s a run on the recommended equipment.

Research indicates that paid sick leave is one of the most effective ways to reduce workplace illness. Before opening your office, make sure your sick and WFH policies are up-to-date.

Businesses with 500 employees or fewer must allow workers who have to self-quarantine to do so (unless it would cause the business to fail) under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. The legislation also requires some businesses to offer partially paid leave to employees whose kids are at home due to school and daycare closures. Various states and cities have implemented their own additional protections.

Make sure your sick and attendance policies are flexible enough that workers who are sick, symptomatic, or know they’ve been exposed will stay home. And ensure there are complaint reporting mechanisms in place. Attorney John Merrell recommends that employers facing decisions such as which employees to bring back to work take into consideration how these decisions will impact protected classes.

In your WFH policy, outline which roles can WFH, the approval process, rules around time tracking and data security requirements.

If you do decide to open your office, it’s likely best to use a staggered approach as opposed to having everyone come back at once. For those who do come in, make sure everyone is wearing masks at all times.

Everyone should sit at least six feet apart, perhaps at 90-degree angles and enclosed by translucent plastic partitions. As you’re making these changes, consider the long-term. For example, if you don’t expect to use your barriers forever, consider buying ones that you can easily repurpose. For example, use dividers you could later convert into sound-dampening wall panels.

Your HVAC system should filter particles, never re-circulate air, and push air down and not up. If you can work with windows open, do so. Consult with an MEP firm to get a better sense of your options.

Use touchless thermometers to take employees’ temperature.

You’ll likely need to reconfigure your space to make it safer. Changes include taking doors off of cabinets and rearranging your furniture and adding signs to show workers how to walk through the space without backtracking like you see in many grocery stores. Repurpose conference rooms into offices. Add touchless doors if possible. Foot-pulls are a less-expensive option, as is placing antimicrobial nano-septic "stickers" to door handles. You’ll also want automatic hand sanitizer dispensers, touchless soap dispensers, UV mobile phone sanitizers, and many boxes of anti-viral tissues.

Consider the impact of aesthetics on morale as you make choices. For example, maybe instead of taping black Xs or arrows to the floor to show employees where to walk or stand you use planters or room dividers.

If this sounds like a lot of hassle, don’t worry. Real-estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield has introduced the Six Feet Office and is offering “recover readiness” for a flat fee with an option to upgrade to custom guidelines or “space auditing” and “change management” if you need even more help.

You should conduct all meetings, workshops, and trainings online. But if for some reason a meeting must in in-person, hold it outside.

Consider how things will be different from before. For example, most employees won’t take transit and many will need parking for their cars and bikes.

In addition, QZ translated a Korean guide to workplace safety. It echoes some of the advice above, and also recommends:

  • Don’t congregate anywhere, including break rooms and kitchens
  • Don’t touch each other
  • If you eat together, don’t talk
  • Don’t share supplies with coworkers
  • Regularly disinfect everything you touch
  • Wash your hands regularly
  • Dab cough
  • Put a person or department in charge of safety

Going forward

If you can continue working remotely, that’s still the safest move. But if you do intend to go back to the office, now is a good time to get your policies in order and start planning for what your new, safer office is going to look like.

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz is Head of Content at Clockwise where she oversees the Clockwise Blog and The Minutes Newsletter. She has covered business software for six years and has been published in Newsweek, Forbes, the Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications.

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