In my very first class in college – a political science lecture – the professor stated, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” In other words, every position is relative to the circumstances presented. That phrase has stayed with me over the years, especially as my profession is based upon the representation of my clients’ various interests. Everything is relative. That includes your desire to re-open your business and/or your goal to get back to work. Here are some considerations that you should keep in mind, though, as you go through this process.
First, the overarching goal of any re-opening plan should be your workforce’s health and safety. It is not a competing interest; it is the primary interest from which everything else must follow. Obviously, no business is immune to economic realities, but generating revenue is only one element. The potential economic harm that could brought about by not focusing on health and safety could reduce revenue because of increased employee absenteeism due to sickness, curtailed operations if the office must be deep cleaned and/or temporarily closed due to illness, and potential liability from claims (governmental and/or individual) that the business was operated in a grossly negligent or reckless manner.
Second, re-opening your business is going to be a process, not a ribbon cutting. The prudent business will create an operational plan outlining the processes and strategies that will be employed to operate safely. This plan must be set forth in writing, distributed to all employees, and acknowledged in writing by each employee that it will be followed.
In preparing such a plan, you should keep several considerations in mind, which I generally outline below. In subsequent blogs, I will go through the various elements in greater detail.
Regardless of where your business is located, there are likely several potentially applicable orders and/or guidelines that have been issued by local, state and federal governmental officials. Some of these orders/guidelines may be expiring, may get extended, or may be more restrictive than other guidelines. Regardless, you must evaluate which ones apply to your business as they do represent current thinking from governmental authorities regarding how business may safely operate.
You must stay up to date on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the United States Department of Labor, and from state and local authorities. Key guidance documents are found on these agencies’ respective COVID-19 specific web pages.
Current Health of your Business Operations
Not all businesses are the same, so you must honestly assess the operations of your business when deciding how best to operate going forward. Is working remotely working for your company? Then, it should be encouraged. If working remotely is not feasible for all employees, then who needs to come back, and how is that best accomplished (i.e., staggered work shifts, reconfigured office spaces, PPE needs, childcare issues, etc.)?
Health & Safety Measures
You will need to evaluate the health and safety challenges presented by your facilities, employees, and third parties (ex. vendors, customers, deliveries). OSHA, the CDC, and the EEOC have provided various guidance documents for businesses to plan and respond to COVID-19. These documents deal with PPE, social distancing, facility modifications, and employment concerns such as body temperature checks, dealing with illness, and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance in the context of pandemic preparedness. For areas that these guidance documents do not address (ex. the elevator in the lobby of your multi-story office building), you may need to involve a greater group of stakeholders beyond your office (e.g. building management, local health agencies) to develop workable measures.
Phased Re-Entry Milestones
Just like many governmental orders and/or guidelines have phases, so too should your business plan for re-opening. You should have a clear understanding for the metrics that will need to be achieved to move from one phase to another. A clear framework for returning to more “normalized” operations will help ease the potential anxiety of employees, customers, and business partners as you go along. Additionally, you need to have a clear understanding of what might require you to phase back to an earlier position of safety, should circumstances change.
What, how, when and where you communicate about your COVID-19 operation strategy cannot be an afterthought. In the short term, this is crisis management. Over the longer term, your communications will be your business voice of reason, projecting a well-earned level of confidence in the “health” of your business operations.
Risk Mitigation and Management
I previously wrote about the need for liability protection for essential businesses as they operate to provide essential services. However, liability protection will be needed by all businesses as they move to re-open, and waiting for statutory immunity that may never come is not a recommended strategy. In analyzing how you can re-open, you should also consider how things can go wrong. By identifying the risks of your “new normal,” you can work on developing strategies to help avoid and/or handle such risks. As the old saying goes, the best defense is a good offense.