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Rules and Responsibilities for Safely Reopening Offices

Jun 16, 2020 by Marc Rapport

Greg Hilton feels a lot of responsibility as he prepares the coworking operation he cofounded in 2014 in Columbia, South Carolina, to officially reopen since it was shut down by COVID-19 in March.

In fact, Hilton would say SOCO was never really shut down. He and his team have actively stayed in touch with their 170 members through Zoom (NASDAQ: ZM) calls and other forms of digital networking and are now moving tables, putting in partitions, and ensuring other protocols are in place for the expected reopening later this month.

His approach? "Go slow, be measured, and remember that we have an obligation to support each other's work lives, but we have to do it by helping everyone stay as safe as possible. That balance of work and safety is what we seek as we follow the official guidance."

A critical new kind of work-life balance

Personal responsibility toward other people will be a key to any successful reopening and to staying open while a life-threatening virus still circulates.

Corporate trainer and author Joseph Grenny touches on that in a May 20 piece in the Harvard Business Review titled "5 Tips for Safely Reopening Your Office."

"As debate rages about restarting economies," Grenny writes, "one critical element is absent from discussion. The predictor of our success or failure will have less to do with when businesses open their doors and more to do with how often people open their mouths."

Accountability is critical to COVID-19 office safety

Grenny doesn't mean literal open mouths, although open mouths are known spreaders of the coronavirus.

Instead, he says, "Decades of research suggest that the heart of a high-reliability culture is immediate peer accountability." In other words: See something, say something.

After all, while Hilton and millions of other office managers can mandate mask-wearing and hand-washing, it's up to the occupants to follow the rules. But there certainly are things that can be done to make the work environment as safe as human behavior will allow during a pandemic.

In a forest of resources, here're two trees

There are scores of resources for office-reopening protocols for property and office managers. Two good places to start are NAIOP, the Commercial Real Estate Development Association, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC.

The CDC regularly updates its exhaustive list of best practices and recommendations on this landing page: Reopening Guidance for Cleaning and Disinfecting Public Spaces, Workplaces, Businesses, Schools, and Homes

And the NAIOP last week released a report titled: Navigating a Safe Return to Work: Best Practices for U.S. Office Building Owners and Tenants.

Provide the supplies, then trust but verify

Here's a short list of protocols culled from those two sources that will be necessary for a successful reopening:

  • Inspection and maintenance: Have all HVAC, plumbing, and other mechanical systems inspected to ensure they are in safe working order before allowing people back into the office. Besides the viral threat, mold and other issues could have occurred while few were watching.
  • Social distancing: Reconfigure seating to provide as much space as possible between each worker and between workers and visitors. Six feet remains the CDC's golden rule for social distancing.
  • Personal sanitation: Provide hand sanitizer and soap, and masks if possible, and require their use, at a minimum when not at personal workstations.
  • Disinfecting surfaces: The CDC guidance includes a list of approved cleaning products. They should be readily available to office occupants, and someone needs to take responsibility for cleaning up after everyone else, just to be sure.
  • Paying special attention to common-use areas like restrooms and dining areas: Limit their use (for instance, by eliminating the communal coffee pot), and ensure they are frequently and thoroughly cleaned.
  • Screening people: Consider using contactless thermometers to check for fevers before allowing entry each day. Waivers that ask about symptoms are another consideration.

Legal liability around a landlord's "duty to care"

A big caveat on that point is this from the NAIOP guidance:

"Owners may also consider screening tenants and visitors for fevers, but they should be aware that they could potentially expose themselves to additional legal liability by doing so. Federal, state and local guidelines on screening for coronavirus symptoms focus on employers, not landlords."

"Screening tenants and visitors could create a legal 'duty to care' that would not exist without the screening. Owners could expose themselves to added liability should they fail to deny an infected individual entry to a building."

Instead, the trade group says, restrict nonessential visitors from entering the building, and encourage tenants to conduct their own screenings.

Lead by example, and make the message moral

Ultimately, even with all those protocols in place, it comes down to people watching out for themselves and each other.

As Grenny writes in the Harvard Business Review article: "The only way to create and sustain change is to have 200% accountability: Employees must understand that they are not simply responsible to follow safe practices themselves (the first 100%), they are also responsible to ensure everyone around them does as well (the second 100%)."

That article also recommends holding a COVID-19 "boot camp" to orient staff to the new realities and expectations, work to make the new protocols habit for everyone through repetition, make daily rounds to ensure best practices are being followed, provide leadership through example, and finally engage in some "moral messaging."

"Make the moral case for changing behavior by telling stories of affected friends, family, or clients to bring the risks of noncompliance to life," Grenny writes.

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Marc Rapport has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Zoom Video Communications and recommends the following options: short August 2020 $130 calls on Zoom Video Communications. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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