Welcome Back? Thoughts on Office Reopenings


I was on the phone with my brother a couple weeks ago. "I think they're planning on reopening the office at the start of May. I should be able to get vaccinated soon after," he said.

I was a bit taken aback. "Um, it seems like the order is flipped there."

He sighed. "Yeah, I might have to talk to them about that."

We've previously discussed in-depth the transition from working in an office to working in the cloud, and what that shift entails. But the COVID-19 pandemic has given many of us a new twist: having to change from a work-at-home situation to going back to a shared physical space.

A lot of us, and our organizations, have gone to great lengths to stay safe for over a year. Why take any chances down the homestretch? As of April 14, just under a quarter of the U.S. population had been fully vaccinated, with a bit over a third having received at least one dose. While those numbers will increase somewhat rapidly, there will eventually be a plateau. A quarter of Americans say they won't get vaccinated, with another 5% currently undecided. In some areas, case counts are still holding steady or rising.

While some organizations will continue remote operations indefinitely and others will delay their reopenings, some may feel a need to reopen soon. Staying as a remote office may be easier for smaller organizations, but even some larger organizations will be onboard. Savings on office space and other in-person elements can be huge. But other organizations will want to bring back the physical element. How do they navigate this return to normal?

(As an aside, while researching guidance on nonprofit office reopenings, I was absolutely shocked at the number of articles I found from April or May of last year talking about how to go about reopening. Nonprofit Quarterly had a very measured take on the issue:

As states ease their restrictions, nonprofit leaders at all levels face some unsettling questions. Have we reached a point where we can safely open our doors? Is the virus sufficiently under control, and are we convinced we will not be adding unnecessary contagion opportunities by resuming "normal" operations? Do we trust that those who are making decisions and guiding the reopening process at the federal, state, and local levels are always making wise decisions?

It is now a year later, and a lot of those questions remain. They say hindsight is 20/20, but it still surprises me how many of us didn't have any idea how bad the situation would eventually get.)

In February, Tatiana Morand put together a nice little flowchart to help guide the decision-making process for reopening. A couple months later and further into the drive for vaccinations, I think a lot of the decision-making she laid out still holds true. The flowchart highlights that the decision-making process for your organization will come down to two specific issue areas: guidance from the scientific and medical communities, and the individual needs and concerns of your people.

From a scientific or medical perspective, you may have to make some tough decisions. Do you want to ask your organization's members if they have been vaccinated? (From a legal standpoint, you can do this, as asking about vaccinations doesn't necessarily reveal additional medical information. You will want to review your state's legal guidance before asking further questions, though.) If so, will you want to require proof? What do you do if a large portion of your group chooses not to get vaccinated? The numbers that equal a safe operating space for your organization depend on numerous factors, such as office layout, ventilation, mask policies, etc. The CDC offers lots of guidance on how to prepare your office for in-person work.

As difficult as those decisions may be, the human element is even harder to quantify. As much as we may want a return to "normal," the baseline for what normal is has shifted a lot in a year. We don't view the world or the people around us the same as we did before the virus. Slate recently looked at the anxiety surrounding office reopenings. In the wake of a year of anti-mask protests and politicization of the virus, many of us have found our trust in others severely damaged: "I do not trust people or institutions in the same way and I don't think I ever will again." "Even when things are as safe as possible, there's a sense that we've been torn apart. Maybe I was naive, but I always assumed in a crisis, we'd come together as a society and have each other's back. It's been over a year of being proven wrong about that over and over again."

Some of the arguments for reopening boil down to the idea that because some businesses and buildings never closed (grocery stores, hospitals), the rest of us have nothing to complain about, that we just need to suck it up and move on with our lives. But this is a gross twisting of the concept of risk management. Just because firefighting exists as a profession doesn't mean it's reasonable to have to deal with your own building frequently catching on fire. ("Well, they deal with smoke all the time; what's your problem?") And just because another profession constantly comes into contact with numerous individuals, both masked and unmasked, that doesn't mean that your organization has to be okay with a similar situation.

Even when things are ostensibly safe again, the anxiety will linger for some. You may need to monitor your group to make sure that individuals are not being harassed and are allowed to operate in a way that makes them feel comfortable. A failure to do so will hurt both your organization's productivity and group unity.

We're not through this thing yet, and there is still the potential for a new twist to come our way, be it another new variant of the virus or something else completely unforeseen. We must remain vigilant to keep those around us safe while also figuring out how to best continue our good work.

Action steps you can take today
  • Follow the CDC's guidance on creating a safe workspace.
  • Check out our previous series on working from home. That might be a logical permanent step for your organization.