Maintenance and Operations, Safety

Things to Consider Before Reopening Your Workplace

As government regulations surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic begin to loosen, employers with remote operations will have more opportunities to transition people back into the physical workplace. Here are key issues to keep in mind.

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No One-Size-Fits-All Solution

To facilitate employees’ return to the workplace, you should develop a reopening plan and enact policies to manage numerous considerations including:

  • Fulfilling your business operation targets;
  • Complying with ongoing legal and regulatory obligations; and
  • Preserving employee satisfaction and the desired company culture.

Because each employer will have different needs based on industry, size, state and local regulations, and unique practical demands, there is no one-size-fits-all standard for reopening.

‘The Way We Were’ May No Longer Work

Before reaching the question of how to transition back to the physical workplace, you should first examine whether a full or partial remote workforce can provide operational efficiencies or cost savings that aren’t available in the physical space. If a transition is appropriate, you shouldn’t assume it means an immediate return to prepandemic operations.

The COVID-19 outbreak has changed the practices and expectations of both employees and consumers, and your company should account for the shifts as you develop the plan. While your business may be legally permitted to open its doors again on a certain date, it may be smarter to reopen on a later date, at partial capacity, or in stages.

Check Out Government Regulations, Guidance

Each state and municipality will have different guidelines for reopening, which the federal agencies and authorities will further inform. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have all issued relevant guidance.

You’ll find government guidance on social distancing policies, COVID-19 testing, temperature checks, and symptom assessments. The guidelines may require you to modify workspaces, implement cleaning and disinfecting procedures, and enact policies to guard against safety violations or discrimination.

Expect More Accommodation Requests to Work Remotely

Keep in mind that bare legal compliance may not be the best decision for your business. For example, you should consider employee requests to continue working remotely or provide flexibility on an individualized basis, even if an accommodation isn’t legally required.

Under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), you’re required to grant a reasonable accommodation to qualified employees so they can perform the essential job functions if it doesn’t cause an undue hardship to the business. A reasonable accommodation is a modification or adjustment to a job, the work environment, or the way things are usually done during the hiring process. Employees will qualify for reasonable accommodations only if they have a disability under the ADA (i.e., a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity).

For employees with disabilities, remote working won’t be granted automatically as a reasonable accommodation. Instead, you need to engage in the interactive process with each employee with a disability to find a reasonable accommodation that doesn’t cause undue hardship for the business.

EEOC guidance specifies employees without a disability are not entitled to an accommodation to work remotely based on concern about virus transmission, including the risk of infecting a family member who is at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

Although not required, you may still benefit by engaging in a dialogue with nonqualified employees requesting remote work to discuss their concerns and possible accommodations. You may discover sound reasons to accommodate an employee on an individual basis (e.g., maintaining workplace satisfaction by letting an employee work remotely who is concerned about an at-risk relative).

Be Ready to Answer Employees’ Questions

Once the reopening plan is developed, share the details with employees, and identify the company’s contact persons for follow-up questions.

Be ready to address employee concerns about your health and safety protocols as well as the ramifications if an individual refuses to return to the workplace by the identified date. Much of the hesitation employees may feel in returning to the workplace can be mitigated by clearly articulating the safety procedures you’ve put in place.

Finally, Allow for ‘Adjustment Period’

Finally, you should expect employees to need an adjustment period upon returning to the workplace. Just as the transition to remote work involved rapid changes to their routines, habits, and job duties, the transition back to the workplace will be accompanied by similar changes. Expect employees to have a range of reactions to the return.

While some employees have thrived in a remote environment, relishing the elimination of commute time and performing productively from home, others have found it quite challenging. After spending months avoiding in-person interactions, some workers may feel trepidation at resuming their duties at the office. Acknowledging the challenges and outlining a clear plan for reopening will minimize disruption, increase employee satisfaction, and provide an opportunity to communicate your company values and culture.

Grace S. Pusavat is an attorney with Parsons, Behle & Latimer. You can reach her at gpusavat@parsonsbehle.com.