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Are We Back Yet?


Person wanting to get back to the office
Image: graphixchon -
As someone who has always appreciated the separation between work and personal life, the shift to work from home (WFH) hasn’t been easy for me. While I was able to get up and running in my home office in no time, and have been taking advantage of WFH perks like running at lunch and blasting my music as loud as I want, this work situation doesn’t come natural to me. Yes, there are the distractions – the dog barking, the Amazon drop-off, the annoying neighbors — but the biggest problem has been gradual blurring between work and life boundaries.
I know that I’m not alone in asking, “When can I come back to the office?”
So, how do we get back to the office safely, taking COVID-19 into account? To answer this, I consulted Stacy Foster, who as director of facilities and technology at international development consulting firm Chemonics International, is providing guidance for her company. She shared insight into Chemonics’s re-occupancy strategy and how it is bracing for the new normal of office working. In part one, we explored how Chemonics reacted quickly to ensure employees were safe at the onset of the crisis. Here we explore how it is moving forward on re-occupancy.
Making the Office Safe for All
Like many other organizations, Chemonics has a phased return to the office, Foster said. Each phase will entail not only an increase in how many people can be in the building or on a floor but also specific guidelines and things that are and aren’t allowed, she added. For example, Chemonics won't support medium/large meetings onsite during phase one because it’s encouraging employees to meet virtually rather than in-person.
Office spaces themselves are going to look a bit different, too. Things like designing for social distancing, preventing unnecessary touchpoints, providing more in-depth daily cleanings, and minimizing face-to-face interactions will all be a part of the new office experience, Foster said.
In planning for re-occupancy, Foster said her team dusted off the files with Chemonics’s office floor plans and started devising ways of meeting social-distancing guidelines. In addition to limiting the number of people per floor and building, the facilities team will be rearranging desks and recommending where people sit, Foster said. Facilities also is implementing one-way corridors, with the goal of limiting unnecessary gatherings, Foster said. And to reduce unnecessary touching of surfaces, facilities is removing unnecessary doors and propping other doors open where appropriate, she added.
However, making the workplace safe and increasing employee wellbeing doesn’t stop at just taking a few doors off the hinges and pushing some desks around — it’ll also require new products and services, Foster said. Toward that end, she said facilities is working with building management to ensure deep cleanings not only of typical areas but also of surfaces that would normally not have been cleaned prior to COVID-19 such as individual workspace surfaces. Additionally, she is working with landlords to make sure that the office spaces have proper air filtration and that they “pull in more outside air.” Chemonics might use air foggers/electrostatic spray to sanitize spaces before employees come back to the office, and make hand sanitizer, towels, and cleaning supplies readily available for staff use, Foster explained.
Getting Employees, Other Teams Involved
Chemonics has taken a “top-down and down-up” approach in devising its return-to-the-office strategy, Foster said. As part of the Chemonics coronavirus response team, which also includes HR, security, communications, operations, division representatives, she has been able to make sure that the re-occupancy strategy reflects IT and facilities perspectives on how to ensure the phased approach is a successful one.
The return to the office will clearly require support from all departments. For example, IT will need to be on hand to support workers getting their desktops set up in the office. In doing this, Foster said she wants to make sure that "the amount of people coming in per day won't be an amount that overwhelms the support teams." And Foster will work with facilities to review where an employee who self-reports a positive or potentially positive COVID-19 status, using an HR-developed tool, has been in the office and what areas that they might have accessed, which will now need a deeper level of cleaning. A log and badge access tracing is used to confirm who was in the building and when, and camera footage is sometimes reviewed as well to ensure maintenance providers are wearing personal protective equipment (PPE).
Even with Chemonics devising workplace processes, working on communications around COVID-19 best practices, and preparing the spaces for re-occupancy, Foster said she believes one of the linchpins to all of this is employee behavior. "We can put as many processes in place until we’re blue in the face..., but unless we have the support of the staff, and the human behavior supports [those processes], we won't be successful," Foster said. Simple things like employees communicating when they are going to use the kitchen or common areas can be a way of limiting gatherings and exposure, she recommended. Similarly, devising a staggered schedule where employees come in at different times of the day can further reduce risk, Foster said.
Will the New Norm Ever Be Old News?
Throughout our conversation, Foster expressed caution at every turn. But even with that, it did seem like a return to the office was at least possible, despite some pundits already predicting the ultimate demise of office space. Sure, the new normal of work will be different, but maybe, that’s not all a bad thing. Just as COVID-19 renewed my appreciation of the small things in my personal life (concerts, going to movies, etc.), I feel like the same can be true about my work life. When I finally get the green (or yellow) light to go back to the office, I will not only appreciate the return to a regular schedule but spending time in-person with my colleagues — collaborating freely and openly.