As states begin to reopen their economies, small business owners are grappling with how to reopen safely.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a majority of states are now allowing some businesses to re-open. Still, you might feel conflicted about whether or not to do so, especially since there are no official guidelines for business owners to follow.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently put out a flow chart tool to help employers making reopening decisions. Businesses should consider doing so only if opening again complies with local and state orders, says the CDC, and if employers have a plan to protect employees at high risk for severe illness.
The CDC also offers additional guidelines for businesses that decide to reopen, including:
- Encouraging social distancing and mask wearing
- Intensifying cleaning and disinfection
- Working out ways to monitor employees’ health
Around the country, business organizations are also making their own recommendations based on what the spread of COVID-19 looks like locally. In Houston, for example, the Greater Houston Partnership’s Work Safe Principles encourage companies to allow all but essential on-site employees to work from home and to use virtual meeting technology, even for employees who might be in the same physical office.
As a small business owner, there are a number of factors to consider as you decide whether or not to reopen your offices, and if you do, how to do it safely.
Health and safety of employees and customers
The last thing you want is to reopen only to have employees or customers get sick with the coronavirus, forcing you to shut down again.
Startup advisor and HR and People Consultant Sehr Charania says that businesses she’s advising — the majority of which are in the tech sector — are taking a cautious and phased approach to reopening for that reason.
“People are really putting health and safety at the forefront and exercising a higher level of caution,” she says. “Companies are making sure not to force anybody to come back who doesn’t feel comfortable,” and especially those who are immunosuppressed.
Many [businesses] are letting employees decide for themselves whether they want to be a part of an early wave that returns to the office, or a later one.
Businesses that are bringing employees back in are limiting the number of people in the office. Many are letting employees decide for themselves whether they want to be a part of an early wave that returns to the office, or a later one.
It’s an approach that makes sense, says Katharine Spehar, director of HR and Operations at Southwest Family Guidance in Albuquerque, New Mexico, since “some people are really ready to get back to the office,” she says. “But others are still really worried and concerned and they just don’t feel safe yet.”
Keeping the office clean
One consideration when it comes to reopening is whether or not you’re able to adequately clean your office, both in terms of having the supplies on hand and being able to afford the added expense of additional cleaning. Disinfectant wipes and sprays have been in short supply for months, and for many businesses they’re still hard to get.
“Supplies have been fairly hard to come by,” Spehar says. Yet, they’re crucial to reassuring employees and customers that you’re providing a safe environment. “You have to make sure you’re adequately stocked,” Spehar says.
It’s also important to work out a detailed cleaning schedule. How will you clean, how often, and how will you stagger staff to accommodate your cleaning schedule? Charania is seeing some businesses bring in a morning team of employees, then emptying the office for a midday cleaning before an afternoon team of employees comes in.
Office space versus remote work
Other businesses are mulling over whether it’s more cost effective to reconfigure office space or continue to let employees work remotely. Installing plexiglass partitions between desks might be an expense you’re not ready to take on.
Some small business owners who’ve decided to reopen, however, are putting in place less expensive solutions, like marking off desks and communal spaces with X’s made out of tape. Other solutions include locking conference rooms and taping arrows on the floor to make foot traffic flow just one way in narrow hallways.
Particularly in high-cost real estate areas of the country like in San Francisco or New York, some small business owners are considering forgoing office space altogether, Charania says.
“That’s certainly on the table,” she says. She’s heard companies talk about repurposing dollars spent on real estate or travel into mental well-being benefits for employees. “There are early murmurs of that,” she says.
Enforcing masks and social distancing
One tricky component of opening up is how to enforce social distancing and mask wearing. Businesses have the right to ask customers to wear a mask or refuse them service. But it’s more complicated with employees. Maybe an employee feels woozy wearing a mask and says it’s interfering with them doing their work.
“You could put a hard line down,” Charania says, “but I don’t think that will resonate with employees.”
Instead, business owners should think through scenarios and be ready with solutions. For example, if you want your employees to wear masks in the office, a staff member who feels woozy in one could work in an area that’s isolated from others.
Spehar says it’s better to focus on a culture of group accountability rather than being punitive with employees.
How to monitor employees’ health
Some businesses are relying on employees to self-report any possible COVID symptoms, while others are checking everyone’s temperature at the door. Still others are asking employees to take their own temperature before coming in and text it to HR.
Taking an employee’s temperature becomes an HR record, so there’s extra work associated with that documentation. What’s more, taking temperatures doesn’t necessarily catch people who have COVID-19 but are asymptomatic, or those who’ve been exposed but have yet to develop symptoms.
“Temperature checks are all over the place,” Charania says. “Some employers just don’t want to have to police it.”
But others are even toying with the idea of offering daily COVID-19 tests for their staff once tests become more readily available.
If you reopen, you’ll also want to have a plan in place for what to do if an employee tests positive for the virus, and how you’ll identify employees who may have been exposed to them.
Spehar suggests businesses also focus on general health and well-being so employees who might be exposed to the virus have a better chance of fighting it off.
Above all, if you’re going to reopen, make sure you have a detailed, safe return-to-work plan in place that you share with employees, Charania says. Be transparent about it. In recent weeks, businesses like tech company Snyk have open-sourced their own plans, sharing them with other business owners who might find them useful.
“There’s no playbook to say this is exactly what you should do,” Charania says. “The two big pieces are business sustainability and health and well-being. The role of a leader is to balance those to the best of your ability, and that looks different for every business.”