Returning to the Office — What Does the "New Normal" Look Like for Firms?

As many counties and states loosen COVID 19–related restrictions for employers across the country, more questions than answers arise regarding best practices in return-to-work procedures.

While continuing to allow employees to work in a remote capacity would be ideal, for some firms continuing with a remote work environment might not be feasible. CPA firms are reporting problems such as managing employees who cannot telework; maintaining morale and cohesiveness in a remote environment; overseeing employees and their work; and dealing with unplanned technology costs, connectivity issues, and concerns related to cybersecurity and the safeguarding of client data.

This "new normal" is anything but normal, and information and best practices about how best to structure return to the workplace and how to safely behave in the workplace will likely change frequently. Firms will need to be flexible and responsive as information and best practices regarding the pandemic are updated by local governments, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Now, more than ever, management needs to be thoughtful and compassionate when dealing with the myriad of feelings employees will have as they contemplate returning to the office. Employees may be feeling anxious about being in the office surrounded by others; or due to personal or medical reasons, they may be unable to wear a mask; or perhaps they are considered at risk themselves or have an at-risk family member in their household. These are uncharted waters and trying times for employers and employees alike, and a more delicate approach may be necessary when dealing with employee issues related to this pandemic.

Preparing for employees returning to the office should be a thoughtful and deliberate process and one supported by guidelines set by state and federal health officials. As firms begin the planning process, there are several items for consideration in preparing the office and employees for the eventual return to minimize some of the potential pain points.

Policies and Postings
All firms should ensure the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) is posted alongside any other employment posters (for employees working remotely, the posting should be sent to the employee via email). Not only should the poster be placed in a visible or high traffic area, management should also be familiar with the language and employee’s rights reflected in the posting.

Additionally, firms should revisit all policies and look for opportunities to be flexible and support employees during this pandemic. Leave policies including sick leave, child care leave and family leave might be reviewed to potentially expand leave eligibility, amount of time allowed, vacation rollover, grace periods, allowing employees to take time in excess of their paid time off balance, etc. Current leave policies should also be updated to reflect any legislative updates. Firms should review bereavement leave policies and allow additional time off for employees who have lost a loved one. For employees expressing angst about returning to the office, perhaps a phased approach or a hybrid approach with part time in the office and part time working remotely might be an option reflected in the policy.

In addition to policies regarding leaves, firms must also put in place policies outlining employees' responsibilities for frequent hand washing, staying home when ill, practicing physical distancing and following hygiene protocol.

Daily Work Adjustments
Protocols should be established to cover how the firm will adhere to guidelines for physical distancing, office cleaning, meetings, business travel, client interaction, etc. Management and employees alike will have to be diligent in doing their part to ensure a clean work environment. Firms should establish protocols for cleaning public spaces (break room, rest rooms, elevator, stairs, lobby, etc.) and include visual aids to mark social distancing in high traffic areas. Firms should provide sanitizing wipes, gloves, face masks and any other protective measures.

Given the many changes to the office environment and how firms conduct business, it is recommended that management have each employee participate in an onboarding process when they return to working in the office. During the onboarding process employees will be provided with an updated Offer/Rehire Letter and should be informed of the steps the firm has taken to ensure the employee’s safety including, but not limited to, reconfiguring the office space, restricting business travel, refraining from in-person meetings, use of hygiene stations, etc. Additionally, the onboarding process would outline expectations of each employee in doing their part and set the stage for moving forward as well as revisiting any updates to the firm’s policies.

If possible, firms should poll employees to gain a better understanding of their concerns in returning to "business as usual." Management should share the general responses and provide follow-up and feedback so that employees feel validated and heard.

Communication, Communication, Communication
This is the time for over communicating. Employees need to know what management has done and will do to ensure their safety. Communication should be frequent and detailed.

Communication should include what returning to work will look like and include schedules, requirements for face masks, sanitizing, office layout, channels for employees to express concerns, suggestions, etc.

If the firm has access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), the firm should reach out and include the EAP in the return-to-work process to provide aid and tools to help ease the minds of employees during this unsettling time.

A well-thought-out and detailed plan will ensure that all important factors are taken into consideration, the risks to employees are managed, and expectations of both management and employees are clear. Reaffirming the firm’s commitment to the health and safety of your employees and consistent messaging that “we are all in this together” will go a long way to smoothing the transition to a “new normal.”

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