HR managers scramble to figure out what returning to the office means

What will returning to the office look like? That’s what HR managers are trying to figure out. (Getty Images/iStockphoto/runna10)

Now that the country is at least talking about the possibility of returning to the workplace sometime soon, company human resources departments are working overtime to formulate a plan for what that will look like.

There is a lot of plan for.

“The No. 1 issue is trying to figure out who is going to come back to work, and then once you have them, then what are the personal protective equipment and distancing practices. Is there a Purell on every desk? There are just so many things that we have to figure out how to do it,” Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Virginia, told WTOP.

SHRM says there are workers who should not come back to work quickly, such as older employees or those with existing health conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19 infection.

There will be otherwise healthy workers who are not comfortable with returning to an office setting yet, and HR departments will have to decide if and how to accommodate them.

HR managers will reassess the physical layouts of office space, which could put a crimp in the decades-long trend of moving to more open, collaborative workspaces. For workers who wish they had a little more private space, many may get it.

“They’ve said ‘gone are the open air offices.’ We actually need to put people back into contained environments so that one sneeze doesn’t go over the whole workforce,” Taylor said.

“We are really trying to figure out what the new physical layout looks like and what is the appropriate PPE to make sure that we give them as safe of a place as we can.”

Office building manager Cushman & Wakefield, which oversees millions of square feet of office space in the D.C. region, has already developed social distancing office layout prototypes it calls The Six Feet Office.

SHRM also is concerned about how some employees will actually get to work, citing the erosion in confidence in the safety of public transportation.

Employee mental health is something HR departments are paying attention to. SHRM said the financial implications of the COVID-19 pandemic are putting a level of mental stress on employees that is like nothing it has seen before.

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Jeff Clabaugh

Jeff Clabaugh has spent 20 years covering the Washington region's economy and financial markets for WTOP as part of a partnership with the Washington Business Journal, and officially joined the WTOP newsroom staff in January 2016.

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