Opening Our Offices: Not Everyone Should Work from Home Forever

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In California, non-essential businesses shut their doors in early March with much of the rest of the country following soon after. For agencies like ours, this meant sending everyone home with their laptops and only seeing their faces on screens for these last three months. It has been challenging but we are, of course, among the lucky ones because our business can be done with a remote team.

I’ve been working with the Culver City Economic Recovery Task Force and know how devastating this has been for so many businesses. There were businesses that couldn’t shut down—grocery store employees and delivery drivers became front line workers with a risk of exposure—and those that may never reopen such as hair salons, restaurants, and local retail shops.

Some of the talks among leaders in agencies like mine, however, is about the possibility of staying remote or only bringing some people back into the office. When Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that employees can choose to work from home from now on, there were many who applauded. The desire to declare this forced work-from-home experiment a success, get out of our leases, and conduct all business virtually moving forward is understandable (rent and other office expenses are a huge expense), but I am not convinced.

We are a creative agency and the very best creativity comes through collaboration—when we’re in conference rooms, and hallways, and office kitchens bouncing ideas off of each other and building on what our colleagues just said. Yes, we can do this, to some extent, on Zoom, but that doesn’t mean we should.

We are planning to bring part of our staff back—the production arm who have access to more equipment and can work more efficiently in the office—over the next month. We will phase in the return to work for other team members over time, with the understanding that we might not all be in the office together for quite a while.

The need to close down caught us all off guard, but when it came down to it, it was relatively easy and we were able to figure it out as we went along. Getting everyone back into the office, on the other hand, is going to be harder. Whether you are planning on opening as soon as your state lifts stay-at-home orders or considering waiting out the summer, here are five things to think about now. Some of these are covered in more detail in the recommendations recently released by the CDC, but others go beyond just creating a safer workspace:

  1. Safety First. Obviously, the most important place to start is with the safety of your employees and doing what you can to keep them healthy. We plan to have the office cleaned twice each day. And, we are going to require daily temperature checks for everyone in the office. We will be providing masks, which must be worn at all times, and we have a team testing out various designs to see what will be most comfortable. We are also making sure that our human resource policies—like sick leave—are in line with an environment in which people who are feeling fine will be sent home for having an elevated fever, and people who are feeling ill should never consider coming in.
  1. Reconfiguring Space. We’re going to try to keep people six feet apart at all times, which means reconfiguring our office layout. We’re lucky to have a great deal of space, but even in smaller footprints, there are most likely moves that can be made to put more distance between employees, or partitions that can be added to separate desks. For some offices, a lack of space may require even more creative solutions where not everyone comes into the office every day or instituting staggered start times so as not to crowd elevators and hallways.
  1. Some People Will Stay Home. We have to be much more cognizant of our employees’ lives and provide ongoing flexibility. We can’t, for example, ask working parents to be on site until childcare centers and schools are open and safe. There may also be employees with underlying health issues who need to stay at home, or those relying on public transportation who don’t feel comfortable on a crowded bus or train. Managers and coworkers must remain understanding—I’ve spent time with our working parents going through which meetings are necessary and what they can deputize someone else to handle.
  1. Dispersed Staff Challenges. One of the reasons that the last few months of working from home went smoothly is that we were all in it together. We understood the challenges and forgave the interruptions. This is going to get more complicated when some people are in the office and some are not. There will be logistical concerns; we’re working on the acoustics in our conference rooms, for example, because they are not great for long work sessions with some people in the room and others on the phone. And there will be personal concerns as well—we don’t want the employees who can’t be in the room to feel like they’re not being heard or those who are to feel like they’re carrying too much of the workload.
  1. New Ways of Interacting. We’re in a high touch industry; we hug, we shake hands, we pat each other on the back. Even when we come back together, physical interaction will be off-limits. It will take time to adjust to an office without these outward signs of collegiality and affirmation. What will likely be even harder, however, will be adjusting to full-time mask-wearing. We say so much with our facial expressions. My HR Director pointed out how hard it would be to give feedback without being able to show concern or sympathy—these conversations will likely continue to take place on video.

We’ve learned a lot about how to work differently in the past few months and we are only at the beginning of this learning curve. The fact that so many businesses have been able to be productive through the crisis is phenomenal, but it doesn’t mean that we should embrace working from home forever. I believe that many businesses should get their teams back together, in person when they can, and it’s time to start figuring out what that will look like.

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