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How to Reopen the Workplace: Part 1, The Office

As state stay-at-home orders are lifted, many employees may be returning to the office. Both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control have released guidance on safely returning to the work environment. “Preparing Your Office and Employees for Returning to the Workplace,” a webinar presented by the American Society of Association Executives, offered further insights from consultants and professionals for creating a comprehensive plan for reopening.

OSHA Guidance on Reopening CDC Guidance on Reopening

“The office is not going away. The reason we know this, is that we have done some significant research on the experience people are having today working from home,” said Antonia Cardone, managing director of workplace strategy and change management at Cushman & Wakefield, one of the webinar panelists. Cushman & Wakefield is a real-estate consulting firm helping clients return to the workplace, and the research Cardone sites is based on the company’s “Experience Per Square Foot at Home” survey, which had 35,000 participants and tracked employee engagement. Based on the results, Cardone predicts that employees will still value the office environment. “We know that the office is the one place we can tap into the culture, the meaning and the purpose of our organization. ... The sense of place and the expression of the culture and that meaning is communicated through office environment, very often.” Cushman & Wakefield’s comprehensive guide for reopening facilities can be found here.

Mandy Frohlich, chief operating officer and executive vice president, strategic affairs for American Physical Therapy Association, also discussed her organization’s step-by-step strategy for reopening, emphasizing a need for flexibility. “This is an evolving situation; we’re all learning as we go and that’s OK. This is an unprecedented situation, many of us have never had to tackle this type of work before, and that’s OK. The key is starting somewhere.”

Six major takeaways

1. Talk with building management

Some companies may own the building which house their office(s). If not, Cardone recommends speaking to landlords or building owners early, and not waiting for them to reach out. This will be necessary for determining how to prepare the building for employees’ return.

2. Create a team to implement reopening

Frolich suggests forming a core team that will execute the company’s reopening plan. She also recommends designating a “decision tree,” during reopening, which includes staff that can plan and execute different policies. For the APTA, the tree includes HR, the organization’s legal team, facilities management team, and the leadership team, Frohlich says.

3. Communicate with the workforce

Communicating the different stages of reopening before they happen is important, says Frolich. She recommends reviewing a variety of reopening materials in order to adapt resources that are most similar to the company’s communication style. Frolich also recommends surveying the workforce before and during the process, to capture questions and concerns.

4. Establish new workplace protocols

All office environments will need to adapt and create new protocols to provide a safe workplace while social distancing is still in place. Companies should review guidance from OSHA and the CDC for recommendations on workplace health and safety guidelines (see below for Cushman & Wakefield’s guides and resources). Companies should consider:

  • Routing traffic around the office, including how employees walk through the space, and how visitors can enter the office space
  • Reducing touchpoints on shared office spaces (ie, in the kitchen), and creating cleaning protocols for these and other areas
  • Increasing distance between workstations
  • Prohibiting shared use of workstations/phones
  • Making PPE, such as face masks, standard and available
  • Creating a max limit for employees gathering in one room

5. Return employees to work in phases

Reopening office spaces will look different to different companies, depending on the number of employees. Companies should consult capacity limits imposed by states that still have restrictions. The APTA will phase employees back into the organization’s headquarters, says Frolich

6. Be ready to adapt

Again, given the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, and its effect on the workplace, some flexibility will be needed. Frolich recommends creating checklists and materials now in the event that workplaces will need to return to remote work; for example, her organization will implement a policy to take computer monitors home in the event of a return to state stay-at-home order, since this was not previously the policy.


  • Cushman & Wakefield’s “The Safe Six” checklist can be useful for starting to think about new social distancing protocols in the workplace.
  • Companies can also consult their “6 Feet Office” guide to consider best practices for setting up a socially-distanced office environment.
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