As various states begin to reopen following COVID-19 closures, businesses must plan ahead to ensure their employees can safely return to the office. A new guide from real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield discusses how organizations can prepare.

With many states allowing businesses to reopen, businesses are looking more closely at how they might reopen their doors when the time comes. While returning to work may sound like getting back to normal, experts say the workplaces people return to will be very different.

“There will be new cleaning standards to ensure that things are safe, and education and training of people,” said Bryan Berthold, managing director of workplace strategy and change management at global real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield. “No one expects to come back to the same old reality.”

Knowing that organizations want to safely bring their employees back to the office, Cushman & Wakefield recently released “Recovery Readiness: A How-to Guide for Reopening your Workplace.” The guide covers everything from ensuring building systems are properly maintained and don’t lead to other health problems to how to practice social distancing in office spaces.

“We don’t want to create a situation where every seat is packed,” Berthold said, noting that offices should still be practicing six-foot social distancing with workspaces.

He expects people to move away from assigned seating. Instead, seating, which would be sanitized each night, could be decided based on who is in the office on a particular day. So, if the marketing team is in the office, they wouldn’t be forced to all cluster in one marketing area. “What I’m seeing is employees looking for the freedom to pick a seat away from others,” Berthold says. “They are looking to have that kind of flexibility.”

In addition to space, organizations need to ensure there is ample sanitation and personal protective equipment for staff who need it. “A lot of clients are asking, ‘Where do we need sanitation stations?’ and ‘How do we make sure they order the supplies?’” Berthold said.

Before bringing the staff back in, organizations should attempt to test the situation first, with just one or two logistics team or senior staff members. “I have one client who said, ‘We are going to operate the first week with nobody there,’” Berthold said. “‘It’s going to be a soft launch with the people engaged in owning this and understanding how it works, and then we’ll let more people in.’”

Even once an organization is ready to reopen, Berthold says employees should be brought back in waves, rather than all at once. “Start with essential workers: people tied to equipment, people handling client data that requires a secure environment,” Berthold said.

Prior to returning to the office, the organization should explain the new policies and procedures to staff. “There needs to be online training ahead of the move back,” he said.

By training staff first and bringing them back in waves, organizations can learn if there are any problems they didn’t anticipate and course correct. “It’s a continuous test and learn,” Berthold said. “I’m sure within the first week, there will be lessons learned. Only starting with 25 or 30 percent of your workforce, you can mitigate the risks.”

Before and during the return to work, communication will be key. “Communicate to your people that you are taking the steps and the actions to make the office safe,” Berthold said. “For some people, maybe the only information they’ve received is, ‘We’re coming back June 1,’ but they’re wondering, ‘Coming back to what?’ Don’t worry about overcommunicating. It’s important employees understand what is being done to make things safe.”

And while organizations should bring back people in tiers, Berthold says distancing rules mean it is a good idea that some people continue to work remotely. “I think we’ll see companies upping the percentage of people who never come back by having more people work from home,” he said.

As organizations prepare to come back, the most important things to remember is that they are not alone. “Don’t try to do it all yourself as a company,” Berthold said. “Lean in on the experts who have seen it. Trying to develop your game plan in isolation is not going to serve you well. It’s time to lean in and work as a team.”


Rasheeda Childress is an associate editor at Associations Now. She covers money and business. Email her with story ideas or news tips. MORE »