Preparing for the day when your agency’s office re-opens

Deciding when and how to bring employees back together in person

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In this episode, Chip and Gini have a candid conversation about the challenges of bring employees back to your agency’s office. There’s a lot to consider — starting with when — for you to consider.

As many states and countries begin to try to resume more usual operations for some businesses, agency owners face some difficult decisions. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and the show hosts strongly recommend involving your team in the important choices ahead.

Chip and Gini also address one of the elephants in the room: will this cause many/most agencies that have offices to become virtual businesses with everyone working remotely.

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Transcript

The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

CHIP: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin.

GINI: And I am Gini Dietrich.

CHIP: And we’re here to talk about reopening your agency. Because Well, folks are talking about relaxing the rules and getting tattoos if you’re in Georgia. Really, that’s what most people have been craving during a tattoo.

GINI: I think it’s more that you we were told we couldn’t and so now that we can, kind of like when you were a teenager, and you were told you couldn’t have those things.

CHIP: Yes. I mean, I when I’m not traveling, I generally work from home. And so I will if I’m not traveling, I will spend you know, weeks at a time barely leaving the house but there is a difference between being told I cannot leave the house right and choosing Yes, leave the house, right. Yes, it is definitely a different experience. But the reality is that as the rules on stay at home begin to relax in some states and countries. It agency owners need to give more thought to what is their plan for reopening If they have an office, and you know, how will they do it? When will they do it? And so that’s the topic for today’s show.

GINI: Yeah. And I think it’s really interesting. There was an interesting conversation on Facebook with a girlfriend of mine who runs an agency in California. And she said that Governor Newsome has said PR firms are part of phase two so that they can reopen. And then there was this big conversation about that they think we just stopped working like, right, I mean, we’re still working. It’s not like we’re reopening. But we could go back, they can go back to the office. And she said, My challenge is, I don’t feel safe doing that. And I don’t feel safe, asking my team to do that yet, even if even if it is part of phase two. And so there was a whole conversation about what that looks like. And, and I think that it’s really individual. I mean, unless you’re a huge global firm with offices worldwide. You know, you’re in and then you have to make decisions based on country and on State. But, you know, if you’re an if you’re an independent, you have to it’s really an individual decision.

CHIP: Yeah. And it is it is certainly a challenge. And I know from the conversations that I’ve been having with agency leaders, there are there are some, I would say, in general, most agency leaders that I’m talking to are on the conservative side. Sure, as far as reopening, because a lot of things can be done remotely if you’re an agency. And so I know that some of the ones I’ve talked to in areas where they are allowed to open now who said, you know, we’re going to wait at least, you know, a few weeks or a month before we pull that trigger, because we want to make sure that we’re erring on the side of safety. Right. Right. I think obviously, that’s a that’s a generally prudent decision because most agencies function pretty well. Maybe not 100% if you’re used to working in the office, but you function pretty well remotely. And so you know, why rush into something that has such potentially serious consequences if you get it wrong.

GINI: Right. And I think that a lot of agency leaders are discovering that people who are far more productive working at home, I mean, sure, there’s the interruptions and things like that. But, I mean, I do think there’s some things to consider. And so, I mean, there there are certain things like, do you have children at home and no child care? Right then and and do you have lots of people like that, or, you know, just one or two, in my agency, I’m the only one with children. So are small children without, you know, people, other people have adult children or teenage children, but so that’s not necessarily something I have to consider. But my husband works in a we work building and he has 50 employees. Well, he can’t he can’t go back to the office because a while we were in Chicago, but that’s beside the point. If they, if when they reopen that, that piece of it. It’s more than 50 people and they’re in a huge office building so you know that those things he has to take into consideration and then I talked to an agency leader earlier this week. And she said, You know, I’m looking at things like, okay, you park your car and you go into your garage. So you have to push the elevator button there. And then there’s four doors that you have to go through, and then you go into another elevator and then you have to go through two more doors. She’s like, I’m just thinking about those things and how many times you have to open a door or push a button, and, you know, the kinds of things that you would never we wouldn’t have thought about three months ago. Right, right. Right.

CHIP: Right. And I think that, you know, one of the key elements here is to make sure that you’re having a conversation with your team, so that you can understand what what their concerns are, what their challenges are, you probably from working remotely, you’ve picked up on some of them if you’re you’re generally communicating, you know, if someone’s got kids at home, you’ve probably figured that out already.

GINI: It’s like you figure it out by now that I have one who I just sent outside.

CHIP: Yes, yes, indeed. But hopefully just within the our socials, hopefully, yes, I can’t see her But hopefully, but you know, but you need to be having those conversations and It’s important to understand, you know, what is your team’s comfort level? And that’s probably going to, you know, vary. And you may guess wrong if you’re not actually talking to them about it, because there are young people who you may assume are more prepared to come into the office, but maybe not maybe they’re enjoying, right, you know, where they’re at. And, you know, from a safety standpoint, or maybe, you know, maybe they, you know, have parents or something like that, that they’re in contact with. So they’re trying to be more careful. I mean, who knows? So, there’s so many individual circumstances, you really need to have those conversations. I think, in general, even though it’s painful to be paying a mortgage or rent on office space that you’re not using, you should be generally conservative about it. And then when you do decide to reopen whenever that may be, I think you need to figure out a flexible arrangement because some folks are not going to be able to come back immediately either because of their, you know, personal health concerns or family concerns or childcare issues or those kinds of things. So it’s really going to be critical to be flexible here.

GINI: Yeah, I think flexibility is key. And you have even though it was thrown in at you in the middle of a crisis, you have figured out how to work from home. And so there is an opportunity here. And maybe it’s flex time, you know, where you do half on half off or whatever. But I think the I think the biggest challenge that agency leaders are going to have between now and the end of this year, is you’re going to have people who are going to want to come back to the office, you’re going to have people who don’t want to come back to the office but need to, and then you’re going to have people who can’t, and you’re going to have those three different groups start to resent one another. Because Oh, well, so and so gets to work from home because they have children and I don’t have children. So I have to be in the office. So there’s, there’s gonna be some of that. Whether they realize it or not that animosity will happen. And so we have to you have to be thinking about that, too. And what does that look like? And in that case, is there one plan for everybody? Or, you know, figure out what that looks like? So yeah, I mean, I think you’re right, the communication just has to Continue to happen, and you have to understand each individual’s needs and where they are, and then figure out a plan from there.

CHIP: Yeah, and you’re absolutely right in this, you know, that the factionalism that will develop inevitably in these scenarios is something you have to account for. And you have to figure out how to message with it and message it and how to deal with it, because it’s not going to go away. I’ve seen, you know, some folks who are advocating that, you know, folks who just be told our offices reopening on this date, we expect you to come in or, you know, things like that, that that’s just not realistic. It’s not, you know, particularly as long as you know, schools and daycare and things like that remain closed. And, and even beyond that, you know, there are folks with health challenges that they may not be disclosed to you. Sure. And so they may be reluctant to come in as a result of them. And so you want to be careful about putting someone in a difficult position there. Now, you do have to try to figure out how to get productivity out of them. And so you’re going to have to work with them and probably there’s going to be some flex scheduling that you’re going to need to do. And so, but all of these flexibility things are important if you want to maintain a strong relationship with your team and still get good productivity.

GINI: Right, great. And I mean, I kind of made the joke earlier that you’ve probably found that people are more productive in general, working from home. And I think that’s true. So don’t don’t necessarily think that just because they’re home, they’re not going to be productive.

CHIP: No, I think that’s fair. I mean, although I do think some people are more productive at home. I think some people are less productive at home part of it depends on their personality types. Part of it depends on your environment, but but certainly it for most people is at least a workable arrangement. And so they’re their productivity isn’t typically way way down. And and so, you know, I think because of that, you don’t want to rush into anything it’s you know, it’s not like you’re a manufacturer and you can only get productivity from your employees if they’re right at the plant. But you know, then then once once you do decide to reopen because at some point you will, if you’ve got an office, in all likelihood be bringing people back, you need to think about all the logistics that go into that. And there are going to be things here that you’re probably not ever thought about before. And you may not still be thinking about but you know, things like, how do you rearrange your office to get more distance between people? Can you even do that? You know, given the amount of square footage that you have a lot of agencies have moved to much tighter quarters, in general, right. And so if you’ve got employees or sitting at a long table or something like that next to each other, is that still a workable environment? It may well not be. And so you know, you’re going to have to look at Do you have to have some people working from home for a period of time? Do you use split days? I mean, companies are looking at all sorts of different approaches to this, but you’re going to need to think through some of those issues from a space standpoint.

GINI: Yeah, it’s funny you say that because we just got an email from school last night, saying, you know, as we think through what this what this looks like, for fall and beyond, I think they’re setting the stage for us not going back to school in person in the fall, but They have said things like they said things like, you know, we were looking at buying more space so that we can build more classrooms so that the classrooms are even smaller. And you know, we’re in a private school and so there’s only 18 Kids per class, but they’re having to look at, you know, how do they split that up even more, and they’re gonna have to have more classroom space. So that that kind of those kinds of things are things that you should be thinking about as well, to your point, you know, if you’re all in one space together, or you have cubicles, you know, all of that stuff has to be taken into consideration.

CHIP: Yeah. And then of course, the fun thing is that none of us really ever give much thought to office cleaning.

GINI: Our blog was about this and where is it? Let me find it. I thought this made me laugh. Um, up until now, most of us judge our office cleaners based on whether the trash was emptied, the carpets vacuumed, the break room cleaned up, and some basic dusting completed, that’s clearly no longer enough.

CHIP: And that’s, that’s absolutely true. You know, I, I used to sit there and when I had employees in an office, I would I would walk around and you check up on the cleaners occasionally just by seeing Okay, you know, they cleaned last night or the trash cans empty, you know, run my finger along the window. So Oh, look, that’s about 10 weeks worth of dust, but that’s not too bad yet. You know, and unfortunately, you know, agencies are going to have to think a lot more about, you know what it is to clean their offices properly. And that that may mean that they’re going to have to pay more for office cleaning, again, nothing you would think about from perspective generally. Not in the budget. But it’s, you know, it’s clearly an issue and there’s going to be higher demand for deeper cleaning services for offices and so you know, even if you want to get that kind of service, can you even get it i mean your regular cleaning service may not capable of doing prior disinfecting deep cleaning type things. And by the way, deep cleaning is not cheap. I’ve talked to some agency owners who have gotten some quotes. And they were just shocked at what the cost is to do a single, deep clean before they come back to the office. Because I mean, it can run into a thousands of dollars for an office to do a single deep cleaning. That’s, you know, that, you know, that’s at that standard. Now, you can debate whether or not that’s necessary. But you know, one of the challenges that we have in this environment is, you know, we don’t really have a good understanding of what liability rules are going to be right, and what kind of decisions are going to be made to be made. So you know, at the minimum, you need to show that you thought these things out and are trying to take prudent steps. You may want to talk to a lawyer before you reopen your office and just make sure that, you know, the steps you’re taking are reasonable for where you are, I know, some states are looking at relaxing liability for employers because there are employers who are afraid to reopen in general, right? You know, because I mean, what happens if someone in your office contracts, the virus becomes really sick or you know, God forbid, dies, you know, can they then Sue? And what does all that mean? So you need to think some of those things through and I don’t want to scare people from reopening their office, because at some point, you’re gonna have to say it’s worth the risk. But, you know, you need to make sure you’ve at least thought them through and have taken the steps that you can to avoid those problems.

GINI: Some other things that you have in this article that you wrote that I think are really important to think about, you know, just operationally is there access to hand sanitizer. Do you do daily temperature checks and, and ask questions, health questions, I mean, that that sort of falls on the side of is it tip a route? is a HIPAA covered or not, you know, what can we what can we ask what can we not?

CHIP: Yeah, and on that note, by the way, I will say that that the that OSHA and the EEOC and others have given some guidance that basically says, and again, I always, we’re not lawyers, so Right, right, with that caveat, But in general, it will be okay to take temperatures of employees and ask them health questions, even ask them if they’ve traveled anywhere. And if someone’s say travel to New York, you can say, hey, you’ve got to stay home for two weeks. Yep. So they’re, in general, employers are getting a lot more flexibility. Now, if you’re, if you’re given health information by an employee, then you do have to follow HIPAA compliance rules, and you can’t disclose that to other employees. So if an employee comes to you and says, Hey, I can’t come into the office, because I’ve got condition X, Y, or Z. And so I’m afraid of what might happen. You can use that information to work out a plan for them, but you can’t tell another employee that that that individual has that condition.

GINI: Right. And that goes to business and personal travel policies as well. You know, when do you start traveling for clients again, and when do you start? I can’t imagine that events are going to open back up anytime soon. So that’s not going to be an issue. You’re not going to go into conferences and trade shows but do you need to get on a plane to go See a client? And what does that look like? or drive across town to go to a client? Are you

CHIP: fair? You know? So, you know, because again, you have to put yourself in the shoes, okay, I send an employee to go to a client, and they potentially contract something from there. So you know, you need to, or vice versa, you have a client come to your office, I mean, you need to be thinking about things like yeah, so you’re keeping visitor logs and visitor policies, delivery policies, you know, are you gonna, you know, a lot of delivery services aren’t going to come into your office Anyway, these days, you know, they may just leave packages outside the door, but you need to have a policy for your own organization. And so it’s a lot of this is just really thinking through the different things that you need to address. And trying to avoid winging it as much as possible. Yes, because winging it tends to be where businesses get in trouble generally, but particularly on things like this, and you’re not gonna think of everything by the way, so don’t don’t beat yourself up when you do have to wing something because right none of us have ever been through this before.

GINI: No, none of us have ever been through this before. And I think I will definitely link to this blog post in the show notes. But it’s really thorough and it does talk through all of these things, travel policies, HR policies, integrating with your team, of course, employee communication, liability considerations, all those kinds of things. But I think the most important part is continue to have conversations with your team, figure out what it is that they’re experiencing what it is they think they can handle and what they may not mean. I have one client who has through 20, some odd 20 year old 20, mid 20 year olds, and they’re dying, they want to go back to the office, they want to be around their friends, some of them have roommates, they don’t like some of them live in studio apartments by themselves, they’re dying to get back to work. And then, you know, 80% of their workforce is you know, have children at home or you know, some of them are older and have kids and college but you know, even still having kids home from college and figuring those kinds of things out to know that there are lots of considerations So just continue to have conversations with your employees and figure out so that you can figure out a plan that works for everybody. And the primary change. I mean, yeah, maybe a second wave of this, we may have to go through this all over again, we don’t know. So be flexible,

CHIP: right? And you need to think about to that point. And in communicating with your employees, you need to think about almost treating the reopening processes or re onboarding of all of your employees. And this is something I I read an article about, if I if I can remember where I saw it. I’ll include a link in the show notes. But, you know, if you think about it, everybody’s going to be coming back to your office, and it’s going to be a whole different organization. Yeah, that was when you left because the environment is different. Yep. Your staffing may be different. If you’ve had to do some downsizing. Yep, your client base is different. So it’s, everybody is effectively coming back to a whole new place of employment after this in some respects. And so you need to be thinking about those kinds of things and have an actual plan in place and the other place that you have to have a plan. And this is probably the least pleasant area. But you need to think about what happens if an employee does become infected. Or if they’re exposed, you know, a family member becomes sick or something like that. How are you going to handle that? And what are you going to do as an office and again, some of this will be dictated by government policies in your areas. So, you know, if they say you’ve had, you have to shut down after an employee gets sick, you know, that bad decision is made for you. But you need to be thinking about, you know, what are your policies going to be? And how are you going to handle those because the reality is, a lot of agencies once they reopen, are likely to have employees who are at a bare minimum exposed to someone who’s been infected, or sir and so, you know, what do you do? What are your policies again, avoid winging it, try to come up with things and I have seen a lot of state governments, local governments have been putting out some guidelines so your area may have some things that they can tap into. I know here in New Hampshire, they put together a PDF document with some suggestions and requirements for businesses that are in the process of reopening. So You know, take advantage of some of those resources in your area so that you’re tailoring it appropriately to your particular needs.

GINI: Yeah, this is definitely not as a one size fits all it’s definitely not a decision to take lightly. And I would say if it’s if it’s easier for everybody to stay virtual for now do it

CHIP: yeah, again Don’t Don’t rush into reopening the office because your your risks at this point are likely to exceed the rewards at least in most areas. So with that, I guess we will draw to a close this episode about opening

GINI: but on bomb she needs to buy one of those sound machines for you.

CHIP: I have I have thought about getting one of those things that I can insert sound effects but yeah, that would that would probably be dangerous for this.

GINI: Definitely be dangerous for me because I would just keep doing it.

CHIP: I didn’t say I was gonna let you have those controls. Gini

GINI: Oh I’m going to buy it for myself.

CHIP: Oh, perfect. That’s just a special but on that note, I’m Chip Griffin

GINI: and I’m Gini Dietrich

CHIP: and it depends

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