Businesses’ Reopening Plans Face Complicating Factors

Approximately one-third of U.S. companies (35 percent) do not know when they will reopen their workplace. The data comes from The Conference Board, which surveyed companies on their reopening plans and strategies.

The Conference Board survey polled more than 1,100 professionals across 20 U.S. metropolitan areas. The respondents—primarily C-suite executives, vice presidents and senior managers—represent a cross-section of industries. The study found that only about 60 percent of companies have consulted their workers about their levels of readiness and comfort in returning to the workplace. In addition, despite talk of a looming vaccine and its benefits, just five percent say its wide availability would be a significant factor in the timing of a return to the workplace. The findings also reveal that, while most companies have mandated certain protocols for employees arriving at work, only 67 percent are requiring screening, testing or temperature checks.

Among the companies surveyed, 39 percent plan to reopen by the first quarter of 2021 and 13 percent have remained open throughout the pandemic. The highest levels of uncertainty over reopening are in Miami (46 percent), Seattle (43 percent), San Diego (42 percent), Washington, D.C. (41 percent) and San Francisco (41 percent).

The Conference Board suggests its finding that just five percent thought the widespread availability of a vaccine would be a significant factor in the timing of a return to the workplace likely reflects concern about the viability of a vaccine with a significantly shorter clinical trial time. It also likely reflects concern about the legal implications for any corporate mandate to get the vaccine as a condition for returning.

The most common actions businesses are taking to protect their workers include purchasing safety equipment, such as masks, thermometers, contactless entry devices and sanitization devices (82 percent); creating new workplace policies that require social distancing, like limiting the size of in-person meetings or use of common areas (80 percent), and preparing the workspace for workers’ return through measures such as deep cleaning or disinfecting (78 percent). Less common steps include providing childcare options for workers (19 percent) and implementing safety measures and/or policies specifically for workers taking public transportation (13 percent).

The 60 percent of businesses that chose to survey workers about their levels of readiness and comfort in returning were also more likely to put all safeguard measures in place, including top employee concerns.

“Companies that sought worker sentiment about their comfort levels were more likely to implement safety measures specifically for workers taking public transportation, revise work-from-home policies, and provide childcare options,” says Rebecca Ray, executive vice president of human capital at The Conference Board. “Notably, these top worker concerns were low on the overall list of safeguards that organizations are implementing, indicating that they are more important to employees than employers may realize. This disconnect reinforces the need for companies to receive buy-in from their most precious resource—their people—especially about matters as consequential as this one.”

Less than half of companies have enacted or plan to enact staggered shifts or staggered timing. The Conference Board reports that despite fairly consistent health organization guidance regarding social distancing, only 46 percent planned for staggered shifts within the workday or work week to reduce worker contact. Moreover, only 46 percent plan to create staggered timing for business units or workers to reenter the workplace.

Two-thirds of companies are requiring screening, testing or temperature checks. However, 67 percent of companies are requiring screening, testing or temperature checks for returning workers. The Conference Board suspects such actions may not have universal backing due to the fear of litigation—specifically relating to who is asked to come back into the workplace—along with the efficacy of these protocols.

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