By Laurie Mega
In many states, the talk about COVID-19 has turned from how to shelter in place to how to get people back to work. But as the threat of the virus continues, companies across industries understand that the term business as usual is going to take on a whole new meaning.
The workplace has changed, possibly forever. Employers, including property managers, now walk a delicate balance between fighting the virus and keeping their businesses open.
The CDC, Department of Labor, and OSHA, as well as IREM and other property management resources, have put together guidance and information for businesses, particularly property managers, returning to work.
When and How Do You Bring Your Employees Back?
Since property managers are considered essential workers under CISA guidelines, you’re not dealing with opening up after a complete shutdown like other industries. Instead, your challenge will be when and how to bring employees who have been working remotely back to the office (if you decide to do that at all).
People will come back to offices in waves, and the timing will depend on where you live. CNBC notes that employees in more rural areas, where a lack of population density has meant fewer cases, will probably be more willing to go back sooner.
The best way to determine when to bring your employees back is to stay up-to-date on the recommendations and guidelines of your community and state officials.
Of course, you may find telecommuting works well for your team. And there are property management firms that have gone completely mobile with the help of property management software.
But if and when you do bring your employees back to the office, it’s important to remember that the pandemic is not over. Current projections put the end of the pandemic two years out, after a vaccine is available and 70 percent of the U.S. population is immune.
So even if your state or local government gives the okay to bring workers back, offices and other workplaces won’t look the same as they did before the pandemic. And stay-at-home orders may be issued intermittently until the virus is under control.
Fortunately, there are a host of resources by different government departments that provide guidance that property managers can use to create and maintain a safe work environment.
Maintain Social Distancing
A big part of the discussion around opening businesses once again is how to maintain social distancing. Workers will still have to maintain the recommended six feet of distance between each other, but how do you do that in an office?
Here are some suggestions from the CDC:
- Allow some (if not all) employees to continue to work from home.
- Stagger shifts so not all employees are in the office at once.
- Create a greater distance between employees and customers.
For that last point, property managers who were once allowing walk-ins may want to discontinue that practice. Instead of letting tenants and owners come in to make payments, set up a drop box outside the office. Or better yet, set up online payments.
Restrict in-person meetings, as well. Use video conferencing software to meet with owners or prospective owners. If you haven’t already, consider an online tool like Propertyware, which provides owner and tenant portals, online payments, and electronic signatures.
IREM also recommends barring employees from using conference rooms and restricting occupancy in common areas such as kitchens and copy rooms. Property managers can designate personal workspaces using tape on the floor, as well.
Establish Prevention Practices
OSHA recommends making hand sanitizer, wipes, and tissues, as well as plenty of trash cans, available throughout the office, especially in high-touch areas. In addition, property managers should encourage the following behaviors in the office:
- Frequent handwashing
- Covering sneezes and coughs
- Avoiding using other employees’ desks, phones, and supplies
- Staying home when sick
OSHA also recommends regular housekeeping, and the CDC provides guidance on proper sanitation procedures for offices that have been exposed to COVID-19.
Finally, put work-from-home guidelines in place for employees who have been traveling. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) which enforces anti-discrimination laws, says if an employee returns from a place with a high infection rate, you can’t require a medical exam to return to work. But you can encourage them to work from home until the accepted two-week incubation period has passed.
You may be considering taking temperatures of employees as a preventative measure. The EEOC has determined taking temperatures of employees is okay during the current crisis.
But employers have to remember that taking a temperature is considered a medical examination, and subject to all the confidentiality rules of an exam.
It’s also important to note that not everyone with the coronavirus has a temperature, so it may not be worth the trouble.
Provide Protective Equipment
OSHA has put together guidelines on how to determine what level of risk workers are at and what procedures they should follow at each risk level. According to those guidelines, property managers would be classified at a medium-exposure risk because they are in frequent contact with the general public.
OSHA points out that the kinds of protective gear you provide for staff will depend on the job and the level of exposure. You might offer face masks and protective gloves to maintenance staff, for example, when they need to perform maintenance or landscaping work.
Note that you are allowed to require protective equipment in the office as well as on job sites.
Limit Interactions With Tenants and Owners
To minimize exposure, OSHA suggests limiting contact with customers, in this case tenants. Property managers may want to limit the amount of maintenance being done at this time, and triage work orders in order of most to least important.
For maintenance that has to be done, workers and tenants should keep away from each other. Maintenance staff should carry wipes and disinfecting agents to sanitize spaces before and after their work.
There are two options for showing properties that can minimize contact. First, you can set up virtual tours where prospective tenants can view properties online.
Or prospective tenants can go on a self-guided tour by accessing a key in a lock box with a pass code. After they have left, property managers should go in and wipe down high-touch areas such as doorknobs, cabinet handles, and counters.
If an Employee Gets Sick
As employees return to work, make sure they’re aware of the symptoms of coronavirus and stress the importance of alerting you and staying home if they get any of them. You are restricted in the kinds of questions you can ask if they do stay home because of an illness.
Make other employees aware that they have possibly been exposed to the virus without disclosing the sick employee’s medical details. Then, implement the sanitation procedures recommended by the CDC, including closing exposed areas, or the entire office if need be, until it is clean.
If an employee shows symptoms at work, it’s important to isolate them right away. Offer them a mask and send them home as soon as possible.
Employees should stay out of the office until they are cleared by a medical professional. It’s important to let employees know that they may be eligible for paid leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
Should an employee get sick, or have to care for a loved one who is sick, make sure your office is prepared, too. Train all employees on the fundamental tasks of each other’s jobs. Workers who get the coronavirus could be out for a long time. In the meantime, another employee can cover for them while they or their loved one recovers.
Returning to Stay-at-Home Orders
The risk of a second wave of the pandemic is a possibility, so property managers should be prepared. Assess what you did during the first wave to determine what worked and what didn’t. IREM has put together a document to help property managers create a plan for future pandemics.
One of your considerations should be a contingency plan for supply or service interruptions. If you contract out your maintenance, for example, and your vendor closes, what do you do? How do you manage if certain cleaning supplies are hard to find? Plan it out and write it down.
Unfortunately, returning to work isn’t as simple as opening the doors. There’s a lot of thought and preparation that has to happen first.
Fortunately, authorities have provided plenty of guidance. Read it all carefully and create a solid plan that will keep you employees, tenants, and owners as safe as possible.