By James Fink, originally published in Buffalo Business First on May 1, 2020, 1:36pm EDT.

It won’t be the same office space when workers return

After more than a month of watching workers do their jobs remotely, landlords and companies have begun to plan on gradually seeing employees make their way back into the office.

A key date may be May 15 when Gov. Andrew Cuomo lifts New York state’s “pause” status to a phased-in approach for reopening the COVID-19 pandemic-stalled economy.

“Office re-entry and getting ready for that has become the major, if not huge focus,” said Shana Stegner, CBRE/Buffalo managing director.

So what does that mean for the workforce landscape?

“There’s still a lot of unknowns,” said Adam Walters, a Phillips Lytle LLP partner who focuses on development issues. “Everything is on the table, but, we are recommending a generally conservative approach.”

That includes Phillips Lytle where all 175 attorneys in its downtown office have been working remotely since mid-March when coronavirus mandates became the norm.

Walters said he is advising his clients to focus on the basics of safety and health for employees and making sure all offices are thoroughly cleaned and sanitized before reopening.

Phasing in workers is also advised, Walters recommends.

M&T Bank Senior Vice President Keith Belanger said social distancing and reducing the number of employee touch points is a priority. Even minute issues like limiting how many people can ride an elevator at any one time will be addressed.

“There is a lot of criteria and we will be checking off a lot of boxes before we start allowing people back in,” Belanger said.

M&T still has 900 people working daily from various corporate sites to handle essential bank services. Within its branches, another 4,000 people continue to work at those locations.

Still, M&T has almost 14,000 people working remotely across its footprint.

Belanger said M&T wants to have all of its health and safety precautions and measures in place before allowing workers to return. That, he hopes, will help address any psychological concerns employees may have about leaving their homes.

“The psyche element is important,” Belanger said. “We don’t want people in their workplace unless they feel and we feel it is safe for them to return.”

M&T, like other employers, will use a go-slow approach for returning employees.

“Staggered work times are very likely,” Belanger said. “We believe in small waves of workers and not one big tsunami.”

Landlords and property managers are also following the Center for Disease Controls guidelines.

Danielle Shainbrown, McGuire Development Group president, said in some cases, there will be more square footage between work stations and plexiglass extensions added.

New filtration systems are being installed and McGuire is installing personal protection equipment stations in all of its buildings. The stations will include masks, gloves and hand sanitizers.

Shainbrown said McGuire is prepping for a couple of scenarios — one where tenants gradually allow workers in the office and the other where everyone returns at once.

“We are cognizant that there will need to be safeguards in place,” Shainbrown said. “What we are dealing with now is as much emotional and anxiety-driven as it is disease-driven.”

National real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield has developed a workplace reopening guide to help its tenants.

Among its key recommendations:

  • Prepare the building: Cleaning plans, pre-return inspections, check HVAC and mechanical systems.
  • Prepare the workforce: Mitigate employee anxiety, develop policies for deciding who returns and for employee communications.
  • Control access: Develop protocols for safety and health checks, building reception, shipping and receiving, elevators, visitors.
  • Create a social distancing plan: Decrease density in offices and elevators, schedule management, office traffic patterns.
  • Reduce touch points and increase cleaning: Open doors, clean desk policy, food plan, cleaning common areas.
  • Communicate for confidence: Recognize the fear in returning, communicate transparently, listen and survey regularly.

“There is no absolute,” CBRE/Buffalo’s Stegner said.  “Each scenario will be slightly different for each company.”