Finally. Some movement. Whether you are anxious that it is too soon to physically return to the office or you are ready, willing and able, it is inevitable. We are going back at some point.
It's been a long and difficult haul for most people! Some have adapted nicely to WFH while others are struggling with overwhelming pressure to handle family, kids in home school, parent caring, added workload, and staying inside and creating a working space in their home that should be in a 7x10 foot cubicle located in the Firm complete with plastic unbreakable walls.
I spoke with a Legal Administrator last week who asked me what firms were doing as a "checklist" to make sure that employees are workplace safe when they return. In my opinion, no one is really "workplace safe". It's an oxymoron in today's "new normal". All we can do at this point, is to make sure we not only follow guidelines but are fiends about it.
One thing that really bothered me during the stay-at-home period, was the number of employees expected to go to the workplace despite the order. Some were asked to pickup mail, write checks, do administrative work and somehow not get the virus. We discussed this in our HR Support Group and what came out was fear of getting fired for speaking up about not wanting to expose yourself anymore than you had to to the virus. Interestingly, it seemed that the majority of people asked to go to the office were primarily women. But that's another topic for another day.
I don't think anyone should be afraid to speak up. This week, we were privileged to have Dr. Lois Frankel speak at our Community to Community webinars. She is a New York Times best-selling author of "Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office" and "Nice Girls Don't Speak Up or Stand Up." We attracted almost 700 people from all over the country - the world, actually - on this topic. What does that say? There is a critical need and concern out there. People need to speak up if you are fearful to go back to the office.
" Covid-19 is blind when it comes to picking victims. It doesn't care about where you are on the org chart, ethnicity, religion, gender, or if you pray to the Virus god in the hopes she is looking down on you."
The Wall St. Journal, in article a few weeks ago, cited several employment lawyers who said that unless you had a legitimate mental health condition documented by a doctor, you were required to return to work if asked. That's pretty tough. A Legal Administrator I chatted with recently said the firm had "paper cups, paper napkins and plastic silverware" ready and were staggering the number of people returning to the office, but didn't quite know what else to do to keep the Firm's employees safe. Oh, lordy, lordy, lordy. Whose idea was this virus anyway? If I weren't a politically correct woman of a certain age, I would say it sucks.
Staying safe should be a prime concern for everyone. One thing we learned the hard way was Covid-19 is blind when it comes to picking victims. It doesn't care about where you are on the org chart, ethnicity, religion, gender, or if you are praying to the Virus gods in the hopes she is looking down on you. The Firm can take steps to ensure your safety albeit not 100%. It is up to you to be reliant upon yourself for safety and if the Firm is not doing what it could, to speak up and speak up now. If you are fearful there will be some kind of retaliation or you will be viewed as not a "team player" (or practicing herd mentality, really), gather your colleagues and speak up as one voice. Many times, several voices acting as one gets more attention and is taken more seriously than one lone one.
Here is a list of 30 actions the Firm can take to help keep you safe:
1. Design a floor plan complete with how movement should flow so that two people are far enough away from each other when walking down a hallway or aisle.
2. Use transparent shields. Don't like how they look? I am sure designer ones will be coming out soon.
3. Get cubicles with walls instead of sitting out in the open.
4. Ask employees to bring cups, silverware, plates from home instead of using lunch room resources. Put your name on each piece and don't let anyone else touch those items.
5. Encourage employees to text or email rather than work person-to-person.
6. Put up huge signs in the restrooms reminding everyone to wash their hands.
7. A study published in The Lancet Microbe tested how long COVID-19 can last on common surfaces. In a 71° room with 65% humidity (much higher than most workplaces), the virus disappeared from printer and tissue paper in only 3 hours. It took 2 days to vanish from wood and cloth and an unfortunate 7 days for plastic and stainless steel. Even in optimal temperature/humidity conditions, COVID-19 is a vigorous enemy. Tell employees to wipe down all surfaces before contact, even their own desks, phones, file cabinets, door handles, tape dispensers, pencil holders, trash baskets, window sills, mouse and keyboards.
8. Promote social distancing with occupation limits in each office, conference room or public areas. Don't expect everyone to remember. It's a new routine. Put up signs everywhere.
9. Phase in how many employees return to work - don't let them all return at the same time. Stagger work schedules so all employees are not in the office at the same time.
10. After coffee or lunch breaks, sterilize the room.
11. Post frequently asked questions and Stay-Safe Etiquette guides.
12. Initiate a staggered 4 day work week.
13. Put in hands-free faucets.
14. Put a sneeze guard at the reception desk.
15. Remove all unnecessary furniture.
16. Assign seating and remove chairs from unoccupied desks and conference rooms.
17. Get rid of the coffee machine and water dispenser. People can bring their own bottled water.
18. Disallow use of the refrigerator or microwave.
19. Don't share phones or keyboards. Wipe down the photocopying machine and printer after every use.
20. Block the use of USB's from home.
21. Forbid work on personal laptops in the office.
22. Reset passwords as some employees may have shared theirs with family at home.
23. Use plexiglass shields between desks.
24. Appoint a crisis management team people feel comfortable going to.
25. Take all depositions and hold client and firm meetings virtually - even if people are in the office. Don't put them all in the same conference room.
26. Appoint a new position: Designated Temperature Guard. Something like a cross-walking guard. Employees and guests must have their temperature taken prior to entering the office. Give them a star or a badge to wear or something that designates their authority. It always makes things more acceptable, sort of like a uniform. Apparently, results of a temperature check are considered a medical record and must be kept confidential.
27. Reimburse employees for masks and gloves or provide them in the office.
28. Monitor changes in OSHA and CDC guidelines. Everything changes extremely quickly as scientists find out more and more about this dreaded virus.
29. Consider employee testing and reimbursement.
30. Stay calm. Stay firm to the guidelines. Stay positive.
When will this be over? While scientists say maybe never, I subscribe to the Pollyanna vision: There is a beginning, a middle and an end to everything. While we won't just wake up one morning and poof! it's gone, we do have to band together or attempts to wipe out the virus just won't work. I, for one, am in favor of wiping it out. I'd like to hug my grandkids again.
Chere Estrin is the CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing, a top national and international staffing organization and MediSums,medical records summarizing. She is the Vice-President of the Organization of Legal Professionals. Chere has written 10 books on legal careers, hundreds of articles and has been written up in publications such as the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Trib, Newsweek, Entrepreneur and others. Chere is a recipient of the Los Angeles/Century City Women of Achievement Award and a finalist for the Inc. Magazine Entrepreneur of the Year award. She is a former administrator at an AmLaw 100 firm and Sr. Vice President in a $5 billion company. She can be reached on Sundays from 3am-5am. Reach out at: firstname.lastname@example.org.