A Strategy for Safely Getting Employees Back in the Office
One Virginia-based association management and meetings firm has been back in the office since June 2020. A combination of staff buy-in, safety guidelines, and flexibility helped them return to the office, even as the pandemic continued to grow.
With many associations still not back in their offices due to the pandemic, leaders are wondering whether they can return in a safe way. The answer may be yes, according to one organization that brought its team back.
The Richmond, Va.-based Eisenman and Associates, an association management and meetings firm, has been back in the office since late June 2020. Terry Monroe, CAE, president of Eisenman’s Association Management Services division and executive director of the Virginia Association of Society Executives, said getting back in the office successfully takes staff buy-in, a good plan, and flexibility.
“You can write all the guidelines and policies you want,” he said. “You can try to mandate all that stuff, but buy-in from the whole team is really critical.”
Eisenman and Associates’ decision to return to the office was initiated by staff, Monroe said. A couple of team members, who felt their home situations were not working and wanted to return, brought the idea to the entire staff for discussion.
“This was a team-driven conversation on how we should do this and what would it look like,” Monroe said. “From there, we realized we needed to create protocols and guidelines for when people did come back to the office.”
A staff team created return-to-work guidelines, which were circulated to the whole staff for feedback. Once the guidelines were finalized over a few weeks, the entire team returned. Among the rules implemented were temperature checks at entry, a no-visitor policy, a mask mandate in all common areas and hallways, requirements for kitchen use, and social distancing. The organization did not have to reconfigure its office space.
“We have old-school office space, where we have private offices,” Monroe said. “That gave us a big advantage.” Team members can remove their masks in their office when alone.
Monroe noted that organizations with cubicles or other types of floor plans will have more challenges. “Physical space is going to be an issue,” he said. “If you have an open floor plan, you are going to have to figure out some way to make an open floor plan work, whether that’s shift work or staggered days.”
The organization is able to collaborate by being in the building, with two people able to talk together while masked in one office. Up to three people can have a socially distanced meeting in the office’s conference room. Eisenman and Associates leases a floor in a building that has a large conference space. If the entire team needs to meet, they use that space.
“It’s been pretty seamless,” Monroe said. “Wearing the mask and the social distancing have become standard operating procedure now, so you don’t really think about it much.”
Why It Works
Monroe believes their return to the office worked well because the staff came together on the issue. “It wasn’t like management said, ‘You must come back on this day,’” he said. “I think that’s important. I think the fact that this was a collaborative discussion, and people had a chance to weigh in and be part of the conversation to help figure out how this was going to work was very important.”
It also helped that the staff has made safety a priority in and outside of work. “There was an agreement amongst the team that, as individuals, we would be doing our best to minimize any risks outside the office,” Monroe said. “We understand our shared responsibility of looking out for each other.”
The organization also is being flexible. While staff is back in the office, some people are telecommuting one or two days a week. “Another thing that is important is appreciating that one size doesn’t fit all,” Monroe said. “Some people work better remotely and some work better in the office. You need to understand your personnel. You need to understand how to get the most out of them and how they’re going to work the best.”
With that understanding, Monroe thinks any organization ready to return can. “I think the lessons we’ve learned can apply to any size organization,” he said. “I realize the bigger the organization, there are more challenges and more staff, but it can be done.”
(martin/E+/Getty Images Plus)