As the COVID-19 pandemic subsides in New Jersey and we see a decline in new cases across the state, the nonprofit and small business community are beginning to plan our reopenings. Once the stay-at-home order is lifted, what will the office look like? How should we prepare our workers for the new normal? What commonsense policies and practices should we put into place to protect our workers and customers?
At Isles, a mid-sized nonprofit in central New Jersey, we’re grappling with these questions as we develop our guide to go back into the office — which includes our large, multi-tenant space, the Social Profit Center at Mill One.
A hybrid approach
The vast majority of Isles’ staff is currently working and delivering services remotely. Even our less technologically-savvy colleagues have adapted to Zoom meetings and online check requests. We’ve found new ways to communicate, with weekly emails from our leadership, online lunch-and-learns, and informal virtual happy hours to stay connected and show off our pets. Generally, our transition to remote work has been a success.
Like many offices, we’re planning to reopen in stages with staggered attendance to reduce the number of staffers in the office on any particular day. We’re paying attention to seating arrangements, rotating schedules so employees who work in open office settings have at least 6 feet of space on each side.
However, transferring to a “hybrid” office can actually be more complicated than one that is 100% remote. Staff not present feel disconnected from their work and colleagues, and managers take to old, informal methods of communication, leaving colleagues out of the loop. Here are some ways to adjust:
- Ban meetings! OK, not exactly. At our offices, we are limiting in-person meetings to no more than 10 people, and discouraging gatherings of more than five. Evaluate where remote work is working best, and services that have successfully transitioned to virtual delivery should continue to operate that way. Ban paper handouts, exchanging business cards, and of course, the dreaded handshake.
- Invest in IT: Many organizations are relying on staff using personal computers at home, or are utilizing old, company-owned laptops on their last legs, hoping they continue to run until the office reopens. Prepare for the long haul, where staff will need to be mobile and have fast and easy ways to connect to colleagues outside of the office. Stop sharing one video conferencing account across your organization and purchase enough licenses to fit your organization’s needs.
- Communicate for all: Once the office is open, it’s easy to fall into old habits — informal updates and impromptu huddles that leave off-site workers feeling disengaged. Practice intentional communication — send emails to put things in writing, schedule meetings to ensure all staff can attend, use an instant messaging service instead of shouting across the hall. While this might feel overly formal at first, these practices will become second nature and make future office closures or stay-home orders less disruptive to your organization’s operations.
- Change the culture around health and well-being: Like most workplaces, your staff are dedicated — so dedicated, in fact, that many come to the office with colds and viruses to “tough it out” and show their commitment to their job. Today, this puts your co-workers at risk of serious illness and your office at risk of closure. Treat staying home when unwell as the responsible and considerate action, and make sure your policies reinforce this and leaders (often the worst offenders) model better behavior.
Great, you’ve set up your hybrid work schedule and supplied your employees with the IT they need to do their jobs from anywhere. What about your physical office?
At Isles, we’re grappling with that very question. The COVID-19 crisis has come at a particularly unfortunate time for us. We’re in the final stages of construction at the Social Profit Center at Mill One, our ambitious redevelopment project that is converting a unique, historic mill into a workplace for nonprofits, social impact offices, and artist studios. The Social Profit Center will house 20 to 30 organizations, with shared kitchens, conference rooms, and other amenities, as well as offer programming to encourage collaboration.
Now, we need to ensure our tenants can be physically distant while finding creative ways to connect and collaborate. Our top priority is building safety, and here are some basic steps any office can take:
- Reduce capacities of conference rooms, kitchens, and lobbies by removing and spacing out furniture. Make it easy for staff and customers to be socially distant by making it impossible for them to sit close together.
- Encourage use of stairs over elevators and set a clear “one household per elevator ride trip” policy. Put tape on the floor to mark where visitors need to stand.
- Place hand sanitizer stations at the front door, by the stairs, and any other high-touch areas. Require visitors to use the sanitizer upon entering the building.
- Install no-touch arm handles or foot pedals on bathroom and other high-use doors.
- Use paper towels instead of hand dryers or reusable towels in the bathrooms and kitchens (as an environmental organization, this one pains us to implement — we’ll be planting some trees in penance.)
- Clean high-touch areas such as refrigerator doors, microwaves, sink handles, and railings often. Make disinfectant wipes available for use and encourage a culture where everyone takes responsibility for wiping down public spaces.
- Protect your front desk worker — they’re usually the frontline worker of your office. Install plexiglass where it’s feasible, or add plants or other large items to their desk to discourage leaning or hovering. Use floor markings to encourage visitors to stand an appropriate distance away, and get rid of paper check-in forms. Require mask-wearing until individuals enter an office or meeting space. And make sure staff follow these policies as well — especially those doing community-based work and facing greater exposure.
- Add signage — everywhere! Post reminders about room capacity, hand sanitizing, elevator usage, meeting sizes, mask wearing, directional signage to keep hallways one-way (where feasible), and anything else that will be an adjustment from the pre-COVID office environment.
These tips are just a few of the strategies the Social Profit Center is planning to implement to keep our employees and tenants safe and healthy. We’re also working on plans to convert programming to still be collaborative in the COVID era — offering lunch-and-learns both in person and by Zoom, reducing the capacity of our large event room to properly space out participants for in-person talks, and finding creative ways to connect to one another while mitigating exposure risk.