President Joe Biden recently implored all Americans to “get back to work,” but many companies are still treading lightly and moving at a cautious pace due to possible liability issues with tenants and employees.

The challenges being faced, together with the strategies being used to navigate this rapidly changing situation, were recently discussed during a webinar hosted by iOffice + SpaceIQ with participants Ryan Parker, Chief Legal Product Officer of SixFifty, and Kelly Johnson, Director of Facility Services for the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Employee liability suits

“Many companies struggled to determine the proper time to open the workplace and wished the federal government would have outlined clearer guidance to make their lives easier,” explained Parker.  “It was extremely tough to factor everything in their decision to arrive at a solution that worked for everyone, with a priority being the wellbeing of its employees. Companies were extremely worried about two different waves. The first was the pandemic itself and the second constituted the upsurge in employees bringing liability suits to companies for mismanagement. Luckily, the second wave never materialized because, by and large, companies took reasonable steps to protect its employees.”

“For our organization, we needed to consider the national metrics in addition to the local ones, because we regularly host visitors from around the country and that made things more fluid and difficult,” stated Johnson. “We also needed to track the movements of our employees in this office once they started traveling. There is tremendous ambiguity in this situation because guidance is shifting so rapidly, so we consistently leaned on our guiding corporate principles when setting policy. Our employees are our most valuable assets, so this guided our decision-making.”

Generating employee input

“These decisions are too important to make in a vacuum, so we initiated regular town hall meetings to talk about these issues, and basically anything,” Johnson added. “Employees appreciated the total transparency and management leaned on input to help drive decisions.”

“Unfortunately, when it comes to setting policy that suits the needs of all employees, complete fairness doesn’t exist based on the variables involved with different job responsibilities,” stated Robin Senecal, Director of A+D for American Office. “You do the best that you can, but employees with ‘head down’ work responsibilities can still work remotely, while others produce optimally in traditional workplaces.”

“You try hard to determine the risk tolerance of employees, which starts with employee feedback, and start formulating policy around that information,” added Parker. “Government guidelines are used as a floor with many companies employing outside groups and health screeners when setting policy. These exercises present a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate the core values of an organization and to achieve employee buy-in.”

“Especially now, an employee’s work and home life are closely connected and we tried to take a holistic view to our decision-making,” added Johnson. “Given all the information we had, the most important thing we did was to take a step back and consider things through the lens of our employees.”