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Disaster recovery experts and IT specialists offer 8 steps companies should take before reopening the office to protect their team's health and business' safety

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  • Before companies start working in offices again, there are a few things management should instill to ensure worker safety, according to disaster recovery experts. 
  • Make sure you give your office a deep clean, set up a layout that adheres to social distancing, and purchase protective gear like gloves and sanitizer.
  • Also, develop a protocol for reporting illness, scan devices that have been used on less secure networks, and continue hosting video meetings to avoid overcrowding. 
  • Remember to check in with vendors, not just employees, and prepare for a second COVID-19 outbreak.
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As companies start to consider what preparations and restrictions need to be put in place for the eventual transition back to the workplace, many are turning to disaster recovery experts, who create technical plans for protecting business assets as well as plans to help businesses operate during a crisis, for advice on how to cautiously move forward.
John Beattie, a principal consultant and disaster recovery expert with IT service company Sungard Availability Services
"A return to the 2019 normal isn't going to be possible for organizations," said John Beattie, a principal consultant and disaster recovery expert with IT service company Sungard Availability Services in Wayne, PA.
According to a recent PwC survey, 65% of US chief financial officers anticipate reconfiguring work sites to promote physical distancing and 52% anticipate changing and/or alternating shifts to reduce staff exposure.
Yet, according to disaster recovery experts, social distancing and alternative work schedules aren't the only changes that will need to be made when employees return to the office.
Businesses essentially need to treat going back to the office as if they were opening a new office location, said Miten Marvania, chief operating officer for Agio, a Manhattan-based IT and cybersecurity firm. Everything from cleaning the office space to delineating office traffic patterns to ensuring devices are free of viruses and malware have to be considered before the first employee comes back to work.
Here are steps recovery experts are recommending companies take to keep workers and their family members safe.

1. Give the office a deep clean

All businesses will need to have their facilities expertly cleaned before employees return to their buildings, said Bud Summers, executive vice president of operations at property emergency services firm PuroClean in Miami. Summers recommended office and property managers ask cleaning companies what products they will use and what areas of the office they will clean.
Bud Summers, executive vice president of operations at property emergency services firm PuroClean in Miami
"Many traditional cleaning companies perform services with just over-the-counter products," he said. "In order to have an office expertly cleaned, it's going to be critical to use CDC-endorsed products and make sure they are applied according to the label to ensure they are efficiently used."
Even after a deep clean, Summers warned that companies will need to offer increased cleaning for common, high-touch areas such as restrooms, kitchens, and reception or waiting areas as well as for hand railings and in elevators.
"Businesses with higher amounts of pedestrian traffic will need to adapt to a more rigorous cleaning schedule," he said.
Companies might also consider closing off kitchens, encouraging employees to eat at their desks, and letting workers know that coffee makers and refrigerators won't be available when they first return to work to minimize people congregating and touching common surfaces, Beattie added.

2. Provide employees with protective equipment

In addition to cleaning regularly, companies will need to provide employees hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes to allow them to clean their work areas daily, Beattie said. Companies should also consider providing face masks, gloves, and other personal protective equipment for employees.
Benjamin Backsmeier, director of disaster relief and environmental safety at SMS Assist LLC
Receptionists and anyone who interacts with the public should have an acrylic or Plexiglas safety shield installed at their desk to prevent contact with customers or visitors, said Benjamin Backsmeier, director of disaster relief and environmental safety at SMS Assist LLC, a multisite property management firm in Chicago.

3. Set strict rules for the office's traffic pattern

To help employees keep their distance, companies should install arrows on the floor to create a one-way walking path, said Apostolis Sambanis, PhD, an adjunct assistant professor in the Emergency Management and Continuity Planning Program at University of Illinois at Chicago's School of Public Health.
Apostolis Sambanis, PhD, an adjunct assistant professor in the Emergency Management and Continuity Planning Program at University of Illinois at Chicago's School of Public Health
"Labeling walking paths and training employees are the best way to get workers to comply," Sambanis said. He recommended that employers follow up with workers who aren't maintaining social distancing to explain why it's important and how to keep six feet apart.
Another way to minimize employee interactions is to assign different departments access to the office space through different doors, stairwells, and elevators, Beattie said. Before bringing employees back to work, let them know which set of doors and hallways are designated for their use and which they should avoid.

4. Develop a protocol for reporting illnesses

Management needs to establish a policy for all employees regarding how they will report any temperatures above 99 degrees, symptoms, or actual illnesses they or anyone living in their household experiences, Sambanis said. Companies might also consider developing a questionnaire for employees to fill out before returning to work as well as periodically, he said.
Questions could include:
  • Has anyone in your house tested positive for the virus or come in contact with anyone who has? 
  • When did you last travel out of state? 
  • When did you last travel out of the country? 
Employees might need to embrace having their temperatures taken each day when they arrive at work to ensure that anyone coming to work is healthy, Summers said. Companies can appoint someone in each department to use a contactless, temperature gun to check each employee at the start of each day.
Employees need to understand that, if they feel sick or have any symptoms, they should stay home, he added.

5. Scan employee devices before reconnecting to the network

Before employees come back to the office, companies need to set up a procedure to scan devices that have been used on unprotected home networks to find viruses and malware, said Oussama El-Hilali, chief technology officer at Arcserve, a data protection provider based in Eden Prairie, MN.
Oussama El-Hilali, chief technology officer at Arcserve, a data protection provider in based in Eden Prairie, MN
"One risk that management might not anticipate is devices returning to the corporate network after being on less secure home networks," he said. "Business leaders should coordinate with their IT team to ensure all devices are being properly scanned to reduce the risk of infection." Businesses also need to make sure the data from these devices have been properly backed up while employees were working from home, he said.

6. Check in on your vendors

Dan Johnson, director of global business continuity and disaster recovery at Ensono
If you rely on vendors for equipment, tech support, or supplies, it's important to check in to make sure they can still serve you when you open for business, said Dan Johnson, director of global business continuity and disaster recovery at Ensono, an information technology company in Illinois.
"Many businesses have made changes to their policies to enable remote work, so check in with your vendors to see what changes they've made and how they will affect your business," he said.

7. Continue to hold meetings over video

Most conference rooms are too small to accommodate group meetings while maintaining social distancing, so, even if you're back in the office, meetings will likely continue to be held virtually.
Nutanix CEO Wendy Pfeiffer
"We foresee that employees will need to join group meetings online via Zoom/Google Meet/MS Teams/Webex if they want to engage in the same level of focused dialog and private interaction previously enjoyed in conference rooms," said Wendy M. Pfeiffer, chief information officer at Nutanix, a cloud computing company in San Jose, CA.

8. Have a plan in place in case of a second outbreak

During those first 30 days back at work, the management team should think about how it would respond to a resurgence of COVID-19 should it arise in the fall or next winter, Beattie said.
"Leadership should have a plan for going back to more remote work and closing the facility down," he said. The plan should outline warning signs for a second outbreak and steps for immediately scaling back operations, including who would work remotely and who must continue to be onsite, he said.
Companies should apply the lessons they learned in March when they first move to remote work, Beattie said. For instance, he said, some companies are rethinking whether it makes sense to have every IT support person working in the same building or if it's better to spread out employees from one department across multiple locations to increase the likelihood that there will be always be someone able to perform each function, even if the virus affects some of the workforce.
"Companies are taking a deeper look at their ability to withstand the next pandemic," he said.
SEE ALSO: An email security firm found 645 potentially fraudulent PPP-related domains registered since the CARES Act was signed into law. Here's how you can protect your business from the theft of critical data.
NOW READ: The action plan employers should follow to secure protective equipment for staff ASAP as they consider reopening their offices
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