CHICAGO — When employees of Cushman & Wakefield started trickling back into the office Monday, they were given face masks, hand sanitizer and sticky notes.
The face masks and hand sanitizer were fairly obvious pandemic accoutrements, but the sticky notes?
The Chicago-based commercial real estate firm is using them to make sure there aren’t more than two people in a bathroom at a time.
“I’ve got a sticky, so when I go to the bathroom I put it on the door,” said Vicki Noonan, managing principal and Chicago market lead for the company. “There shouldn’t be more than two stickies on the door.”
Some offices are starting to reopen with a limited number of employees who are volunteering to return. As they do, companies are piloting new safety policies to protect workers from a health crisis that shows few signs of waning. The early steps, from practical safeguards to quirky solutions, offer a glimpse at what office life might be like once more companies bring employees back.
Hand sanitizer is everywhere, and certain desks are blocked off to promote social distancing while working. Conference rooms are often off limits, as are dining areas. There are signs on nearly every wall, door and TV screen reminding workers about the new rules.
Steps that once might have felt invasive, like daily temperature checks and health assessments, are often required before employees can walk through the front door.
The temperature-taking machines that private investment company Peak6 installed at the entry of its Chicago headquarters and other offices automatically checks employees’ temperatures as they approach. The company spent $65,000 on the machines, along with masks, shields, gloves and cleaning supplies for its almost 1,100 employees. Roughly 250 of those workers are in Chicago.
If the light flashes green, an employee’s temperature is fine and they can proceed into the office. If it’s red, they’re expected to exit.
Employees that opted into Peak6’s return-to-work pilot — set to start Monday — know what they are getting into, said Judi Hart, chief operating officer. Some employees changed their minds when they learned they had to wear masks, even while at their desks.
“There is not an expectation that anyone has to come back, but we do want to offer it up to those that want it,” she said. “We are doing this by design to allow us time to test things to get it right. Nobody’s done this before.
“But let’s be clear: You’re sitting in a huge office by yourself with a mask on. It’s not normal.”
The lack of normalcy is, in fact, the new normal at work.
Some companies have drawn circles on the floors of elevators, marking where people should stand — as far apart as possible. Zurich North America put foot-shaped stickers on the floor leading up to the elevators. The insurance company also plans to give employees a tool they can use to press the buttons to open elevator doors, to reduce the surfaces they’re touching when they return to the office.
In break rooms, most companies have cordoned off dining areas and rendered shared refrigerators off-limits. What once was a place where co-workers chatted or jockeyed for fridge space likely will be empty.
“We have closed our cafeteria food service, given the potential for touch contamination, and have limited seating available in the cafeteria,” said Lauren Russ, spokeswoman for Baxter International, which is restricting attendance at its Deerfield headquarters to 20%.
Kraft Heinz’ Chicago corporate headquarters occupies floors 72 to 76 in the Aon Center, and those floors are only accessible through shared elevators. That’s a long, shared ride for an employee to take each time they want to go on a coffee or food run.
“Safely facilitating coffee breaks, snacks and lunch is a crucial component of our return to office planning,” Michael Mullen senior vice president of corporate affairs, said in a statement. “We are considering many different options, from prepackaged foods to delivery options with local food providers.”
What of the communal coffee pot? In some, but not all workplaces, it’s likely to disappear. At Echo Global Logistics, where 50 to 60 of the company’s 1,500 Chicago employees have returned, the coffee is again brewing, but new rules are attached to grabbing a caffeine pick-me-up.
Signs tell workers how to use a sanitary wipe to hold the coffee handle while they pour, ensuring no one actually touches the pot. And if they slip, it won’t be long before someone on the facilities team comes by to disinfect, said Paula Frey, chief human resources officer at the logistics company.
The task of enforcing the new rules falls often to the facilities team or human resources department. Companies are coming up with creative ways to tattle on a co-worker who may embrace the new rules.
Law firm Perkins Coie set up an email inbox where employees can report anything they think is unsafe, such as a co-worker who consistently forgets a mask. In Chicago, only about 15 of 250 employees have been coming into the firm.
“They don’t need to have that confrontation if they’re not comfortable,” said Jennifer Bluestein, chief talent officer.
Discover is another employer trying to create an environment in which employees can stand up for health and safety precautions in a non-confrontational way.
In a video shared with employees earlier this month that outlined what to expect when they return, a worker gestures to his own mask as a reminder to a colleague who forgot to don one when leaving his desk.
The risk of conflict is low with so few people in the office, said Andy Eichfeld, chief human resources and administrative officer at the financial services company. The company gave employees the option of returning to its headquarters in north suburban Riverwoods starting June 15, but only 30 to 50 people have been in the office each day. Before the pandemic, as many as 5,000 employees and contractors worked at the company’s headquarters on a typical day.
Local employees don’t have to wear masks while working alone at their desks, but do need them in common areas. Employees haven’t complained, but those who object might simply be choosing to stay home, Eichfeld said. In surveys, some employees said they would rather not come to the office if it meant wearing a mask.
At Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, employees are required to wear a mask at all times when they are in the Chicago-based architectural firm’s office. The firm will continue to allow staff to work from home if they don’t feel comfortable in the office.
“It’s a stop gap that will avoid those potentially thorny issues if they do come up,” said design partner Scott Duncan.
When it comes to the new pandemic-related policies, what the boss says goes.
Employers have a right to require workers to wear masks in the office, said Amber Clayton, director at the Society for Human Resource Management.
“When an employee refuses, employers can implement their own policy and process, including disciplinary actions,” she said.
In situations where an employee has a health condition that might prevent them from wearing a mask, the employer can allow them to work elsewhere.
Companies also can require employees to get temperature checks or get tested for COVID-19, Clayton said.
Zurich North America plans to ask employees who plan to head into the office to take their temperature at home and stay there if it’s above 100.4 degrees. The insurer employs 2,200 people at its Schaumburg headquarters and roughly 250 in its Chicago office.
“We’re not using certain testing protocols as a reason to declare whether you can or cannot come into the office. The temperature checks and that sort of thing is actually a screening protocol,” said Bob Boyle, chair of the company’s crisis management committee. “It puts the responsibility on the employee.”
Many companies say they do not plan to force their employees to get tested, but will require notification if they test positive for COVID-19.
If an employee at one of Walgreens’ offices tested positive, the company would close the office or a section where the employee worked for disinfecting and cleaning and ask the sick employee and coworkers who may have been exposed to self-quarantine for up to 14 days.
The Deerfield-based company reopened its Chicago-area offices, including its headquarters, at half capacity, and returning is voluntary, Kristin Oliver, the company’s chief human resources officer, said in an email.
The transition back into the office, and the paradigm shift that comes with it, will take some getting used to, said Betsy Ziegler, CEO of tech hub 1871. “I personally don’t think we’ll ever go back to what it was in March,” she said.
Only about 15 people are working out of 1871 in Merchandise Mart, compared with 1,000 on busy, pre-pandemic days, Ziegler said. The tech hub is requiring people to wear face coverings unless they’re in a private office, do a symptom pre-screening before coming in, and is limiting the number of people allowed in the auditorium and other shared spaces.
The limited office space, the social distancing, the mask-wearing — all that is the easy stuff, she said.
“The hard stuff is the conversation around health, how work has actually changed, mental health is a big one,” she said. “How do you be human all the time, because the level of stress around this is unlike anything any of us have ever had to deal with.”
(Chicago Tribune reporter Abdel Jimenez contributed.)
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