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When the novel coronavirus pandemic began, headlines sang the dirge for the office; however, the office is far from dead. Workforces have adapted well to remote work, but companies across the U.S., including here in Illinois, will initially bring a small percentage of their workforces back into offices. Workers are likely to stagger their start and end times, and new technologies – from temperature checks and contact-tracing tools to automatically opening doors and new air-circulation systems – can make returning to the office safer. In Chicago, office-building managers shared – before Labor Day – that only up to 10% of their typical populations had returned to downtown office buildings. But, in a recent pulse survey, members of the Human Resources Management Association of Chicago (HRMAC) expressed cautious optimism about office reentry, with several noting that they’ve discussed it internally with legal, human resources, and other professionals, as well as employees and managers.

Christy Harris, senior vice president of human resources at Allstate and member of the HRMAC Board of Directors, spoke with HR Leader about her company’s approach to reopening its Northbrook office.

As COVID-19 grew into a pandemic, Allstate moved quickly and put people first by transitioning the majority of its employees to work from home to help keep them and essential workers who still needed to be in the office safe.

While most employees continue to work from home today, Allstate has initiated a return to office strategy that will eventually lead to a future state where employees have more flexibility in where they work, fewer people are in offices every day, and daily work routines are more integrated with technology, automation and digital experiences. Harris says the firm has taken “a phased approach to returning to the office, with a small number of non-essential workers voluntarily coming into select offices that meet established safety conditions and criteria.”

Establish Guiding Principles

One of the first steps in considering a return to the office is to review current laws and regulations. That is just one of Allstate’s guiding principles. Harris adds that the insurer also built on expert advice, focused on keeping employees and customers safe, and planned and coordinated centrally but adapted locally. Harris also advises, “It’s better to be too late than too soon.”

With guiding principles, employers will have an easier time crafting policies for returning to the office that leave customers and employees at ease. Harris says that non-essential employees will not have to return to the office before January 1, 2021. “We’re using data as well as local and federal guidelines to inform our decisions as it relates to returning to the office,” she adds. “We’ll be engaged in a phased return to the office strategy, and those returning will be volunteering to do so. We expect to eventually have a more flexible work environment where employees will have a hybrid arrangement – split between office and home.”

Harris explains, “One of our guiding principles is that we lead and coordinate centrally but execute locally. As a result, we’ve established a Return to Office Playbook that provides enterprise-wide standards for each location on when to open, among other things, and we expect those to be met.” Because Allstate’s employees are all leaders, they will be committed to adopting and executing each safety protocol as they return to the office, she says. “However, we’ll have designated site leaders to help manage adherence to our policies and practices,” Harris adds.

Tackle Office Changes

Neil Schneider, design director for Interior Architects in Chicago, indicated to Crain’s Chicago recently that employees are enjoying a greater balance between their work and home life because they have shorter commutes and more flexibility. Nevertheless, some struggle with working longer hours from home. These competing experiences need balance, and he added that it is important not to make blanket assumptions. One way to ensure there is greater balance is to survey employees to see what they are comfortable doing. Some HRMAC members shared (via the same pulse survey) that they are paying for employee parking in Chicago for those returning to the office who are not comfortable taking public transportation.

In addition to remote working and work-life balance, employers also need to consider how to social distance in the office space. Some employers are considering software to schedule shifts for workers throughout the week and for booking conference rooms, while others are rearranging office spaces to ensure desks are six feet apart. According to a story from The Wall Street Journal, technology can also help alert employers and building managers when rooms are at capacity given social-distancing rules, open doors automatically to reduce touch surfaces, and even dispense hand sanitizer at certain high-traffic locations. Some employers may want to consider wearables to assess employees’ exposure and transmission risk, facilitate contact tracing, and rapidly isolate new cases and close contacts.

For low-tech solutions, employers can offer wipes for employees to clean shared devices and appliances. Elevators can be limited to 2-4 passengers per trip, and building managers can bring in more outdoor air, improve the efficiency of their air filters and incorporate ultraviolet germicidal lights.

Train Leaders and Employees

As part of its efforts to safely return to the office, Allstate created a mandatory Return to Office Virtual Training program that outlines safety protocols and standards as defined by the Return to Office Playbook. Each employee must attest that they have read the playbook and that they are committed to adhering to all safety processes and protocols outlined in the guidelines. Secondly, each employee must undergo a symptom screening protocol to confirm they are feeling well, have not been exposed to COVID-19 and that they have not participated in activities that could put them at a higher risk for infection. Finally, they must pass a temperature check at the office.

Harris says that Allstate employees are generally happy with the company’s response to the pandemic. Part of that, she says, is because “we continue to learn and adapt to ways to enhance the overall experience, paying particular attention to our culture.” Like any unexpected change, however, challenges will come up. Harris says that some employees may not have proper home office arrangements and some are dealing with the additional stress of kids learning from home and elderly parents who need care. “This makes managing work and home life more complicated,” she adds, and it needs to be addressed.

Harris reminds us that it’s important to be agile. “The current environment is changing rapidly, so setting up guidelines and using them to inform your decisions will help,” she advises. “Because of our transparency, our employees trust we are making the best decision for our company, customers and them.”