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Employers plan slow return to office

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Many companies across the Ozarks have shifted operations in the last two months to a remote environment, and as the state begins to ease its stay-at-home orders, local employers are beginning to consider how to bring staff back to those empty workplaces.

It’s not a conversation taken lightly, officials say, because health concerns remain a priority despite plateauing coronavirus case numbers locally.

Springfield Mayor Ken McClure and the Greene County Commission issued orders April 30 to reopen most businesses beginning May 4 with some social distancing and cleaning guidelines. The new order, considered Phase I, will expire May 31, and the current stay-at-home orders are still set to expire at the end of the day May 3.

Karen Shannon, vice president of business consulting at Ollis/Akers/Arney, said business leaders across the area have started asking the insurance and risk assessment firm what to consider while developing a plan to return.

At Ollis/Akers/Arney, Shannon said company officials have planned a three-phase approach to return its 57 employees across four offices. The first two phases, she said, will allow employees to return on a voluntary basis while staggering workdays and shifts for its staff members to minimize contact with other employees. The third phase brings all employees back with adjusted workplace guidelines.

“We want to be very conscientious about how we’re bringing people back to the workplace,” Shannon said. “Depending on what happens, we might have to adjust this plan, but we wanted to have a plan in place.”

Starting the conversation
Crystal Mapp, marketing director at KPM CPAs PC, said the accounting firm also has developed a three-phased return to the office.

Declining to disclose details until staff is made aware of the plan, Mapp said the firm is taking a slow approach to bringing staff back but is waiting to move forward until receiving further guidance from city and county officials. The firm’s lobby will reopen May 4, when the state is lifting the stay-at-home order.

“Everyone’s needs right now are different. The government lifting the restrictions doesn’t mean things go back to normal,” Mapp said, noting some employees have children who are not returning to school this year.

The firm’s COVID-19 task force has discussed where in the office they’ll need to set hand sanitizer, wipes and handwashing stations, Mapp said. The reception team will be required to wear face masks for the foreseeable future.

A guide recently released by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry outlines how businesses can return to work safely. It suggests “safe-at-work” requirements, such as disinfection measures and proper handwashing and surface sanitization. Social distancing is recommended by changing shifts and eliminating shared spaces.

Mapp said the KPM team is prioritizing communication with staff through the process about returning to work and making sure each member’s needs are met.

“We’re trying to remain incredibly flexible,” Mapp said. “We’re all working through it together, and I wish we could plan the next 30, 60, 90 days, but we just have to take it as it comes.”

At Paragon Architecture LLC, company officials are having similar discussions, though they have to consider different offices across Missouri, which brings multiple city guidelines, said President Brad Erwin.

At the new Springfield office, for which the firm received an occupancy permit in March, Erwin said the space will allow the company to keep 6-foot distancing requirements when employees return.

“Because we also designed our space for future growth, we have the ability to spread out in our space,” he said, adding this may mean the capacity of designated conference rooms may have to shrink from an eight-person room to a four-person room. “We’ve been pretty successful in how we’ve operated in the six weeks remote, so we’re not going to push back too quickly.”

The firm is beginning to consult with clients about repurposing their own offices as they plan their shift back to work, Erwin said.

“We’re strategically working through solutions that provide that level of safety and security so that they can be 6-8 feet away from everyone,” he said.

BKD LLP officials also have begun those conversations, though details hadn’t been determined by press time. Local Managing Partner Gary Schafer said the company is evaluating the city and county’s guidelines and considering how to implement a plan at its offices nationwide. Julie Cummings, human resources manager for BKD’s national office, did not return requests for comment by press time.

“We’re all anxious to get back. We can’t wait until it’s safe for us to do that, but we’re going to be cautious,” Schafer said. “We’re able to be pretty effective remotely.”

Considering health risks
Shannon said she’s advising employers to think about how they can best help their employees succeed during this time of transition. That might mean some employees keep working from home because of health concerns or child care needs.

“As employers, you have an obligation to provide a clean and safe environment. Are we going to shut down employee lounge areas so people don’t congregate there?” she said. “Maybe we’re continuing to use videoconferencing for meetings. Just because we’re in the same building, doesn’t mean we’re all going to huddle in the conference room.

“We need to continue to use technology we’ve been using during this time at home even though we’re in the same building.”

At Haven Healthcare LLC, President John Ray said all meetings are currently done through videoconferencing, though the staff still reports to the office each day. Office staff has also been restricted from mingling, he said.

“Those precautions will probably remain in place for the foreseeable future. It could be until there’s a vaccine, so we may end up having to do this long term,” Ray said.

Over the last two months, the company has laid off seven of its 187 employees, three of whom requested to stop working. Ray said three employees have come back to the company with more expected to return in the coming weeks. He also noted only a few of the health care provider’s clients have dropped services because of COVID-19 concerns.

Shannon said that because many businesses were unprepared when COVID-19 hit, now is the time to think about a long-term continuity plan. “We’ve got to use this experience to develop our long-term plan for this fall, which is flu season, so people aren’t caught off guard again if, and when, we have another situation that will cause us to use our business continuity plans,” she said.

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