We continue to live in a COVID-19 world and, as many states look to reopen, office space is likely to look very different both on a short-term and long-term basis.
In today’s issue, we provide eight suggestions with respect to reopening your office in the midst of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
Mintz & Gold LLP
Ejection Seats and Reopening Your Offices
As we look for diversions in these perilous times, let’s give a Leasing Illustrated round of applause to an unnamed 64-year old French defense company engineer whose colleagues gave him a surprise gift of a joyride in a Dassault Rafale B fighter jet and, in a stupendous “my, what does this button do?” moment, accidentally ejected himself from the plane at 2,500 feet.
No worries, his parachute deployed and our French engineer hero landed safely in a field at the German border and, true to form, promptly surrendered.
The engineer was apparently highly stressed but gamely played along in this French Air Force jet that can go nearly 1,400 kilometers per hour. The watch he was wearing could measure his heart rate and indicated that he “was in full tachycardia.”
Our clients often feel the same way when reading one of our lease mark-ups.
It seems that when the jet started to climb he reached for something to hold onto and, well, all he found was the ejector seat button.
And no, nice try, but there is no ejector seat button to save you from this newsletter.
These days, all of us can understand the stress when life delivers an unwanted surprise and the COVID-19 crisis has been anything but a joyride.
We have covered in our past couple of newsletters the legal issues arising from COVID-19 with respect to commercial leases, but as many states begin to reopen we wonder what office life will look like as we head back from social distancing captivity.
There will certainly be some long-term consequences that we cannot yet determine.
As stated, the remote work genie likely cannot be put back in the bottle and companies will need to be more flexible in this regard.
Businesses may also need to reconsider open space seating and collaborative breakout spaces and common areas, once viewed as essential for workplace interaction, but really more essential for reducing expensive office space by putting more employees in the workplace sardine can (not such a great idea as people fear workplace malaria pits).
And the effect on retail businesses will be massive, to the extent that addressing that subject will require its own separate newsletter.
But today we are focused on the short-term need for office businesses to get back to work and figure out how to reopen.
Offices cannot be made virus free, but tenants will need to make employees comfortable enough to get back to business.
Can this be done?
The question is which policies will make employees more comfortable and which policies will have the opposite effect and make employees wonder whether they are better off working from home.
There is no one size fits all solution and each tenant will each need to figure out what works best for its individual business.
The determination regarding when to return must be guided by governmental and health expert directives, and implementation should be done in a non-discriminatory fashion and in a manner to protect privacy, but based on what we are seeing in the marketplace, you should consider the following eight suggestions as you reopen your office:
- Create a plan. Prepare your employees and mitigate anxiety through active communication. Survey and engage employees to get a feel for expectations and concerns and draft and distribute a detailed plan before your office reopens. Communicate with your landlord to understand the building protocols so that you can make your requirements work seamlessly with those of the building. Perhaps appoint a COVID point person to whom employees can confide or make inquiries.
- Limit entry. Consider temperature checks upon entrance (touchless forehead thermometers are the least invasive), although since many with the virus have no symptoms this may not be overly helpful. You may want to offer testing for the virus or antibodies but if you do so use licensed health care professionals and follow legal requirements (see the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements for medical examinations). Employees who are found to be ill or showing symptoms (or who have household members who are ill or showing symptoms) should work from home until the expiration of an appropriate self-quarantine period or confirmation of recovery with a doctor’s note. You may want to expand your sick day and medical leave policies. In-person meetings with clients, vendors and other visitors may need to be restricted and outside deliveries (including food) may need to be curtailed. Outside business meetings and travel should also be restricted.
- Examine your physical workspace. The options to facilitate social distancing are extensive and include redesigning your space to end shoulder to shoulder seating, reducing use of common spaces, returning to the use of cubicles (egads, no!), mounting of plexiglass barriers on desks (in particular for receptionists and other high foot traffic areas), only take-out service in office cafeterias, directional signs for hallways, and the prohibition or limitation of use of conference rooms, pantries, breakout rooms, elevator lobbies and other small spaces.
- Consider air flow options such as air filters that push air down and not up and outdoor gathering spaces used to allow collaboration without viral transmission. And if you are lucky you can, as my former partner Howard Squadron always demanded, open your windows for freer air flow.
- Consider restricting the use of office copiers and printers and remove shared items such as restroom keys, whiteboard utensils and remote controls.
- Reduce density. Consider a phased return of employees, staggered shifts, spreading out of employees within the office and perhaps providing for work on alternate days. Encourage telework especially for employees that are older or otherwise more vulnerable and provide greater flexibility for employees with childcare or transportation issues. Fewer employees in the office at one time will allow for more social distancing and less opportunity for exposure. Possibly implement the use of daily attendance sheets to help with contact tracing if it becomes necessary. Consult with your employee/labor advisors regarding engagement with employees seeking COVID accommodations.
- Require personal Protection. Yes, employees may be required to wear masks and gloves (except perhaps when alone behind closed doors such as in a private office). Provide education regarding frequent hand washing and other hygiene that can limit the spread of the virus.
- Increase cleaning. In addition to what your landlord provides, you should arrange for enhanced cleaning to sanitize all work areas, including offices, conference rooms, eating areas, restrooms, doorknobs, countertops, drawer pulls, light switches and all common equipment and surfaces. Supply disinfectants, hand sanitizers, wipes and similar products throughout the office.
- Use available technology. If possible, change front door keypads or touchpads and replace with Bluetooth or key fob triggers (or even simply keep certain doors monitored but open during the workday).
- Remain Flexible. This will be an ongoing and fluid learning process with many fits and starts. You should communicate, remain open to new ideas and suggestions, consider alternative approaches and be prepared to adjust your guidelines and policies. You should also continuously monitor federal, state and local statutes and guidelines governing safety and employee issues.
In addition to the heroics of our health care professionals, police, firefighters and EMT, postal, grocery store, delivery and other front-line workers, there have been some positives during the crisis. My favorite is 60 and over grocery shopping. My fifty-something brother Michael is envious and is looking for a college freshman who can help him get a fake ID (there’s your shout out Mike, now stop bothering me on Zoom!!). Follow the eight suggestions above and maybe you can parachute safely back into office life.