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When and How to Reopen the Office During COVID-19

July 07, 2020

After working from home for months, trying to stay healthy and curb the spread of COVID-19, law firm leaders have begun determining how and when to safely transition their workforce back to the office. Now that states are beginning to lift mandatory closure orders, here are some considerations for firms seeking to create policies that address the challenges of operating a business during the coronavirus pandemic.

Create Safe Workspaces and Safety Protocols

At minimum, a firm’s return-to-work plan should comply with all relevant federal, state and local orders. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued guidance on preparing workplaces for COVID-19, which outlines steps employers can (and should) take to reduce exposure.

To prevent the spread of the virus, firms should enforce social distancing. By now, you probably know what that entails—ensuring that workers maintain six feet of distance from one another. That might mean reconfiguring workstations or operating at reduced capacity. You should also consider whether to issue masks or other personal protective equipment to employees. It’s also smart to encourage personal hygiene by providing no-touch trash cans, hand sanitizer, disinfectants and disposable wipes for employees to clean work surfaces. 

To protect employees from infection, law firms also should create guidelines that address in-person contact with people visiting the office, and coordinate with landlords and other building tenants on safety protocols in common areas. You should also determine, in advance, exactly what steps to take when an employee reports a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19. Employers must instruct and encourage employees to self-monitor for symptoms of COVID-19 if exposure is suspected.

Decide When Employees Will Return

Just as important as who’s coming back, is when they’re coming back. Firms need to determine which employees need to return to work in the office, and which can continue working remotely. Employees whose jobs require in-person work and those needed to help the office operate should probably be the first to return.

Note: There’s a big pitfall to be aware of during all of this. Firms must not discriminate against workers to protect them from COVID-19. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued guidance that bars an employer from excluding employees from the workplace simply because they’re over 65 years old, even though federal health officials say those workers are at greater risk of severe illness if they contract COVID-19. Similarly, the EEOC also bars firms from excluding employees from the workplace due to pregnancy.

Even after physical offices reopen, many workers will want to continue telecommuting, so they can take care of children or older relatives, or deal with other personal issues created by the pandemic. Firm leaders should consider those personal issues before instructing an employee to come back to the office.

Establish Policies for Continued Remote Work

Firm leaders also should create (or update) telecommuting/work-from-home policies for those who continue to perform remote work. The policies should address attendance, working hours, technology/equipment requirements, data protection measures, team member communication, client service, work product confidentiality and other workplace issues. Implementing a robust WFH policy that outlines guidelines and expectations for remote workers ensures that both employees and the firm will benefit from these arrangements.

Stay Flexible

Many of us miss the in-person office setting, and the close collaboration, personal connections and teamwork that comes with it. But given that there still is no COVID-19 vaccine or proven treatment, firms resuming work at the office also should plan for the possibility that a spike in the coronavirus infection rate could force businesses to close again. Guidance from local, state and federal authorities continues to shift in response to this public health crisis, and firms should monitor developments and make workplace adjustments as needed.