It is the greatest human resources challenge of the modern corporate era.
In early March, U.S. companies — including most banks — sent their employees home to work as the Covid-19 pandemic gained strength and many states issued shelter-in-place requirements and business lockdowns. Most banks kept their branches open for limited customer access, and continued to staff their operations centers, but sent most of the remaining people home. Now, banks are starting to repatriate these employees as state restrictions are eased, and the economy begins to reopen.
There are a number of factors to consider as your bank prepares to repatriate its office staff, including how to keep them safe and changes that will have to be made to the workplace. Some employees may be leery of returning to their old offices since the Covid-19 infection rate is still rising in many states, even though the national rate is slowly declining. New precautions need to be put in place to protect your staff from infections, and these will need to be communicated clearly to them.
It seems highly likely that U.S. companies will have to learn how to live with the Covid-19 virus for the foreseeable future.
Darin Buelow, a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP and leader of its global location strategy practice, says the only comparable experience in recent memory was the hectic week after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center towers in New York. Most of lower Manhattan was closed, and the big Wall Street banks had to make alternate plans so they could operate when the financial markets reopened on Sept. 17.
“The banks had to figure out how they were going to get ready for the market reopening, and to do so without trying to cram and jam all their employees back into lower Manhattan,” Buelow says. “This prompted them to [move to] their business continuity sites, if they had them, in the suburbs. And if they didn’t, very quickly look for those locations where they could try to get trading desks and phone banks and everything else they needed to occupy offices.”
Of course, this was in the days before widely available video conferencing services. Many households still had dial-up internet service, so relying on a distributed workforce wasn’t an option. “But it was short-lived, and Manhattan was deemed to be okay again,” Buelow says. “What we’re experiencing now is new for all of us.”
Buelow has five suggestions that bank management teams should consider as they prepare to bring their employees back into the office.
Prioritize Employee Health and Safety
To make employees feel safe while the pandemic continues, banks should provide them with personal protection equipment (PPE) while also conforming with new, Covid-19 hygiene standards that have started to emerge. Banks should be stockpiling PPE supplies now, even if they don’t anticipate bringing their people back until the fall or later. Banks that have kept their branches and operations centers open have already had to take these precautions, although they now be applied on a larger scale. “Demand is increasing because there are more companies that are planning on having those stockpiles ready to go for when reentry happens,” Buelow says. “But also, the supply curve has been increasing. We’ve got more companies engaged in producing those products now, and they’re really starting to ramp up.” Of course, this could change if a surge in infections occurs this fall as the economy reopens, leading again to scarcities.
There are various Covid-19 hygiene standards that companies can rely on as they prepare their workplaces for reentry. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has released a set of recommendations — “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for Covid-19” — as have the International Facility Management Association and the Building Owners and Managers Association International. And of course, banks should be checking state and local guidance and requirements as well.
Modify the Workplace
Most offices will have to be reconfigured to provide enough room to maintain social distancing precautions, and this could limit the available space for people to 25% of its normal capacity. “If they try to get up to 50% capacity, most layouts are going to be problematic, and it may be difficult to achieve six-foot distancing,” Buelow says.
Banks with employees in high-rise office towers will have to work closely with their landlords to address a number of issues. “Many [banks] are going to be in multi-tenant situations,” Buelow says. “Landlords have responsibility, oftentimes, for the lobby, for lobby security, maybe lobby temperature testing, maybe lobby hygiene, bathroom hygiene and ventilation. Increasing ventilation is something that’s being debated, the merits of that, the feasibility of that to remove airborne contaminants from offices. Not an easy thing to do, but the landlord has to be part of that conversation. Modifying the workplace is not just what to do in your own space and your cube farm, it’s also engaging with the landlord.”
Elevators in high-rise office towers pose another challenge because they will only be able to take a small number of people at a time to maintain some level of social distancing. “Imagine in a multi-tenant building that has an elevator design platform, which presumes that people are going to pack those elevators [from] 8:00 to 9:00 in the morning,” says Buelow. “Even if your company decides that it’s only going to bring back 10% or 15% [of its employees], if there are other companies that have a much higher number than you and you’re not the only one using those elevator banks, it’s going to slow it down for everyone.” Buelow says that some companies are already modeling how long it will take employees and customers to reach a desired floor using their building’s elevators. He knows of one major company that estimated it would take two hours in the morning and evening for people to enter and exit the building.
Prepare the Workforce
Communication is a critically important piece of the office worker repatriation process. Returning employees will need to be trained on any new Covid-19 safety procedures or mechanisms that have been put in place, as well as proper PPE use. Equally important, employees will need assurances that their health and safety are the bank’s top concern. “I think most companies are going to be very proactive, transparent and genuine in their communications to their employees,” Buelow says. “I think it’s important to communicate with employees that the company is going to place their health and safety above everything else. Be open about the timing of when you think you’re going to be looking at coming back. We’ve seen companies say things like, ‘We know it’s not going to be before Labor Day.’ Or, ‘We know it’s not going to be before 2021.’”
Buelow says some companies have assured employees who are afraid of returning to the office that there will be no repercussions if they continue working from home. “‘And when you feel comfortable coming back, we would love to have you, assuming the state and local regs allow it and we feel like we’ve been able to put in place the changes that we feel are necessary, in order to make it a safer workplace,’” he says. “I think it’s just all about communication and change management, and helping employees understand where the company’s priorities are.”
Develop Pandemic Management Protocols
These involve all the processes the bank will rely on to keep employees and customers safe. Some of these processes will be in response to federal, state and local mandates, while others will be developed by the bank itself.
“We’re already living in a country that has pandemic management protocols [PMPs] in place,” says Buelow. “You have to wear a face mask if you’re going to go to the grocery store. You might be gated on your way in, you might be subject to temperature testing. So those PMPs are a fact of life in many U.S. cities right now. And it could be that way for some protracted period of time. What we’re saying is that companies need to have new protocols and new procedures and new policies to deal with pandemic times.”
Buelow offers one example of a PMP that could become a common occurrence as employees start returning to the workplace. “What if you develop a fever while you’re at work, in the office on the 17th floor, at 3:00 in the afternoon?” he says. “Where do you go? What’s your routing? Who do you notify? What does day one look like on the first day of reentry? What can employees expect? What’s the protocol for testing and screening? What’s the work-at-home policy? I think there’s new policies that have to be written, new procedures and protocols that have to be developed and followed.”
Use Technology to Enable New Ways of Working
It seems likely that companies will be forced to rotate their office staff until either an effective coronavirus vaccine has been widely distributed, or some level of herd immunity develops and naturally drives down infection rates. And there are a variety of technology tools that can help manage Covid-19 risk in the workplace.
If you’re going to do temperature screening, for example, you’ll need a way to track and manage that information while protecting the employee’s identity. “There are technologies out there to help with … contact tracing or contact awareness so that somebody who has a fever at 3:00 in the afternoon, who were they sitting near?” Buelow says. “Who did they brush up against? Who did they eat lunch with?”
Another technology, deployed either as a wearable or a mobile app, would enable employers to detect who an infected person came in contact with so it wouldn’t be necessary to quarantine an entire floor or department for two weeks out of an abundance of caution. “Deloitte has an application that just hit the street, called MyPath, which does a lot of these things,” Buelow says. “It’s a tool that companies can use for these kinds of self-certifications at home and contact awareness, and case management, and a number of other things to help clients and companies with all of the technological aspects of reentry.”
There is also a technology that monitors how rooms are being used and whether social distancing restrictions are being observed. “Are people congregating in rooms where they shouldn’t be having too many people in a particular room?” says Buelow. “Removing chairs or draping them so that people don’t use them doesn’t do any good. If a meeting is called in a conference room with 20 people and they just roll 20 chairs in there, they’re not socially distant anymore.”
The process of repatriating office workers includes a lot of unknowns. For example, how will they feel about working in a very different environment which may still pose an infection risk despite all the precautions? “We’re not really sure what reentry is going to look like,” Buelow says. “If the employer creates a space that is so antiseptic, and everyone’s wearing masks, and nobody’s in meetings with anyone else, and they’re behind barriers, it could actually discourage integration. If you had to wait in the lobby for an hour-and-a-half for an elevator, on top of all of that, would you really want to come back on Tuesday after your Monday experience? So, that remains to be seen, and it could further delay reopening.”