Returning to the Office – the New Normal
The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has disrupted normal business life currently and for the foreseeable future. “Business as usual” is no longer a realistic expectation. We should expect a new normal once people are permitted to reoccupy their office space.
What should law firms do to ensure their employees’ safety and make certain that policies are compliant with revised labor laws and public safety?
Monitor the Health of Employees To Prevent Spread of the Virus
To start with, firms should consider supplying all employees with disposable masks that have to be worn throughout the day.
People with temperatures above normal should not be permitted access to the premises. Because obtaining thermometers may be expensive for the firm, it may make more sense to see if the landlord will pay for them. After all, it’s in the property owner’s best interest to monitor the health of those entering the building. In addition, because receptionists and security personnel are not medical professionals, it may be prudent to provide them with screening questionnaires for all guests to complete prior to entering the premises.
Stagger Schedules to Minimize Exposure
To avoid delays and maintain 6-foot social distancing for those entering the premises, it may be wise to stagger employee work hours. Start clock-in hours at 8:00 a.m., 8:15 a.m., and so on.
The firm may want to stagger workdays, as well, and ask some employees to work two or three days a week remotely. Make sure to provide these employees with a work-from-home policy and get a signed receipt of the policy from each of them. These policies should include detailed information about avoiding cybersecurity risks and the sharing of confidential information. Non-exempt employees will need to continue to track hours worked to ensure they are compliant with local labor laws.
As remote work continues, firms may want to re-evaluate their document management and cloud environments. With core staff back in the office, this may be an opportune time to make changes.
With any policies implemented, be sure to comply with HIPAA laws, and be diligent so as not to discriminate against employees with pre-existing conditions (e.g.diabetes) or employees who are over 60 years of age. It is advised that anything regarding HIPAA and employee relations be reviewed by an employment attorney.
Promote Social Distancing in Shared Spaces
Signs should be prominently displayed in all common areas to address safety and policy issues.
Conference Rooms: These spaces may be set up as work areas, if necessary, to help with social distancing. The conference room reservation panels outside the doors can be disabled. It is probably best that meetings with clients and business partners be done remotely.
Consider removing shared conference phones, and encourage the use of personal mobile phones or laptops for teleconferencing.
Kitchens: Shut down your firm’s kitchens temporarily or, at the least, restrict the preparation of food in the shared space. Making coffee and tea may be acceptable by a limited number of people who will clean their hands prior to and after use. Provide disposable plates and cups for all employees.
Hallways: Whenever possible, hallways should be marked “One Way” to reduce face-to-face interactions. The use of the stairwells should be coordinated with the landlord.
Quiet rooms: Use of Quiet Rooms should be restricted unless it is feasible for the rooms to be sanitized after each use.
Copy Stations: Use of copiers should be limited to a select group of people who will clean hands prior to and after each use.
Mail Collection: A few employees can be selected to review mail. After reviewing incoming mail, those employees should thoroughly wash their hands.
File and storage rooms: As with all other shared spaces, reduce the number of people entering these confined spaces by appointing a select group of employees to access files.
Reduce Transmission With A Few Simple Steps
All pens and erasers should be removed from shared working spaces, including conference rooms, so employees are required to carry their own. Disposable wipes should be available for all employees to use at their workstations and prominently displayed in all common areas.
Signs may be placed close to switches to remind people to leave the lights on all day. DO NOT turn them off. Many offices have movement detectors to activate the light switches; this is a good feature to consider when building a new space. Also, it would be prudent to provide wall-mounted disinfectant dispensers prominently displayed in all common areas.
If possible, implement electronic payments for all accounts payable and accounts receivable accounts. Keep in mind, when the company takes credit cards, it will have to absorb the fee. Insist that companies institute wire transfers and no longer depend upon USPS.
Continue to Host Virtual Meetings
While it may be tempting to resume face-to-face meetings, it’s best to keep clients and business partners from visiting the office at least for the time being or until social distancing restrictions are lifted.
Employees should be discouraged from visiting clients. People should continue to take advantage of virtual meetings when necessary.
Prepare Employees for the New Normal
Employers may want to hold a mandatory “return to work” seminar (remotely preferably) for all employees, including owners. Employees should sign a document that they participated in and understood the seminar being presented.
People may be suffering through this unique time, and suicide, drug overdoses, alcohol poisoning and other psychological issues may be more prevalent. Members of Human Resource Departments are likely not qualified to provide adequate counseling. It is recommended that Human Resources provide contact information for the EAP (Employee Assistance Program). Most companies have this option with their healthcare provider. Of course, conversations with human resources professionals must be kept confidential.
As many institutions including daycare centers, schools and summer camps remain closed, employees may have complicated issues relative to caring for their children. Employers should be mindful of these obligations and try to accommodate varying scheduling requests.
These policies are fluid and may change as the situation alters. Under the banner of Better Safe than Sorry, it may be necessary to keep these precautions in place until a reliable vaccine is available. It is better to be more conservative and overly protective of everyone involved.
About the Author
Gail Ruopp has acquired more than 25 years of professional experience in senior law firm management, initiating best practices in administrative operations, including: financials, accounting, lateral recruiting, personnel, day-to-day operations, systems management, and firm marketing.
Gail has served as an Executive Director at New York City and Philadelphia area law firms dealing with various areas of practice. www.gailruopp.com