Return to your office safely with our health checkpoint.

Learning from the workplace doctor: A conversation with Bertina Yen, MD, MPH, & VP of People

“After the pandemic started, we quickly figured out that we’re not in a sprint, but a marathon. As we pass the 6-month mark, we now realize we need to treat this more like a triathlon that no one signed up for. We’re just coming out of the swim and figuring out how to get on our bikes.
We have to pace ourselves appropriately and find ways to support one another if we want to get as many people over the finish line safely.” - Bertina Yen, MD, MPH, & VP of People at Evidation.

Your company’s return-to-workplace plan should be unique. It must be based on regional guidelines, company culture, and individual needs. If there’s one thing we learned sitting down for a conversation with Bertina Yen, industry leader with experience in people, workplace, AND public health, it’s clear there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to bringing your people back to the office.

In this Q&A post, we cover Bertina’s thoughts from our recent webinar on topics ranging from crafting your unique reopening plans, getting started with a pilot program, supporting physical and psychological safety, and more. After all, it’s hard to find someone more qualified to speak about workplace planning during a global pandemic.

Rather watch her in action? Check out the full webinar recording.

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No one-size-fits-all in workplace planning

1. How do you recommend examining each layer of the workplace today (public health, company, and individual)?

In terms of public health, examining this broader level forces you to understand the minimum requirements being defined by your local health authority, as well as the thresholds to determine when different businesses can operate safely. Workplace teams need to be thinking about the greater good beyond just the company and the employee.

For the company, evaluate short-term, mid-term, and longer-term business choices and implications (i.e. productivity, collaboration, liability, PR).

Finally, for the individual, ask yourself, “how does this impact people personally and potentially other people they live with or spend a lot of time with”?

2. How do you determine what’s best for the company vs. the individual?

At a company level, you need to talk with your senior leaders and make sure you’re aligned on your core business needs and functions. Ask yourself questions like:

  • What key business functions require someone to be physically present in the office (processing mail, manufacturing, face-to-face interaction with clients/partners/employees)? 
  • What roles/people are required to perform these tasks (who become your de facto “essential” workers)?

At an individual level, you need to ask or survey employees about how they feel working from home (and not make assumptions), their overall productivity, and their mental health — which might be especially challenging for employees who worked primarily in an office setting pre-COVID. 

As you identify your company’s “essential” workers, you need to ask how they feel about coming into the office, both from a safety and feasibility perspective (i.e. childcare needs with virtual school) and identify backup plans as needed.

3. There’s a lot of debate around what companies can do vs. what they should do? How do you differentiate between the two?

Local public health authorities define the minimum thresholds of what companies can do based on their assessment of the risks that different businesses pose to their communities when they reopen. What companies should do goes back to really understanding what is mission critical to the business as it relates to bringing employees back to the office (and could be more conservative than what the local health authority has defined).  

This requires answering questions like: 

  1. What are the risks of reopening on a larger scale or too quickly (eg, key individuals or teams getting sick, liability concerns, PR concerns)? 
  2. What are the business trade-offs we are making by not bringing employees back to the office (eg, ensuring new employees are trained effectively and are able to ramp up efficiently)?
  3. What are our alternatives to address these gaps if we do not reopen on a larger scale?

How to get started with your pilot program

1. What are the top priorities for a pilot program? Top risks?

For priorities, first identify the resources and staffing required to train your employees and hold everyone accountable to new protocols. Demonstrate that you are able reopen the offices safely, even if just for a few individuals at first, to gain employee confidence and trust. Then decide whether or not to scale up the approach in the short-term or open more broadly in the longer-term.

For top risks and challenges, optimizing for team collaboration rather than individual productivity at first is risky from a public health perspective, even though lack of in-person communication may be the bigger business challenge to solve. 

I am a big believer in getting some smaller wins under your belt before tackling the big ones. You have to prove to the company that your approach to re-opening offices is working and will continue to work as you invite more people back to the office and/or allow more group-oriented activities in the office that potentially introduce more risk.

2. How can workplace teams structure the office to provide connection as well as individual workspaces? How can teams find a balance while managing risk?

At a minimum, indoor office space needs good ventilation and filtration, including opening up windows if possible. Ideally (especially in the pilot), individuals should be allowed to work by themselves in offices, conference rooms, or high-walled cubicles Pro tip: it’s great when those individual work spaces have clear walls or doors so that they can physically see and have some communication with others who might be in the office.  

If two or more people must meet in person, keep those meetings short (stand up or walking meetings are a good option), take advantage of any outdoor space (if you have it), and be very careful that everyone is maintaining at least six feet of social distance with correct mask wearing. 

To help make sure social distancing is not falling through the cracks, start fresh and completely re-do the office layout so that you can be intentional around exactly where you expect people to sit or stand. Having the appropriate signage in place is preferable if you’re keeping your pre-COVID layout, along with blocking off desks/chairs not meant for use. 

Caution tape is not inviting and does not inspire employees to think about how the use of office space will continue to evolve during and post-COVID.

3. Can you tell us a little bit about how Evidation has worked through office planning since COVID and potential plans for pilot programs?

Back in July when we were temporarily allowed to reopen non-essential offices in the counties where they’re located, we did a limited pilot to open up offices for a handful of employees a few days/week who were interested in improving their individual productivity (including one of our co-CEOs). 

We had to close our offices back down when local infection rates increased over the summer. We’re expecting to restart and potentially expand our pilot program before the end of the year if local infection rates continue to improve and stay low.

In parallel, we have been reassessing our future office space needs and options in 2021, especially in the Bay Area where one of our office leases is expiring in Q1 2021.  We are anticipating that once a vaccine and/or better COVID testing is available, we will be able to open up our offices more broadly, optimizing to a distributed workforce with options to work individually and with teams in both of our California offices. 

The timing of figuring out when to pull the trigger on securing and setting up the facilities to support this new normal is tricky, so we have been looking at potential proxies to use (eg, vaccine approval by the FDA or availability of feasible options for more frequent testing/effective contact tracing) that may gave us a 6-8 month window for negotiating leases and coordinating build-outs.

Physical and psychological safety

1. How do you define both physical and psychological safety? Where do they fall in return-to-work planning?

Physical safety means that the infection risk is minimal (may never be zero) as determined by the data and interpreted by external experts and parties. It is quantitative and relative to previous measurements of physical safety.

Psychological safety is the individual’s interpretation of how safe they actually feel or believe to be in that situation. It is qualitative and built on trust of the external experts and parties. 

Depending on the person, psychological safety may lag quite a bit behind physical safety. Just putting up a “We are finally reopened” sign up at the office will not bring the masses to your door. Similarly, forcing everyone to return to the office at the same time and in the same way we were using offices pre-COVID is not going to build the trust required to reopen our offices successfully.

2. How can workplace teams prioritize these safety needs?

Continue to periodically ask or survey employees on how they’re feeling about coming back to an office space as you move past the pilot phase and get closer to opening the offices more broadly. 

Readjust your protocols, office layouts, and messaging as needed. Share your success stories with office reopening across the company. Leverage people who have successfully returned to the office as your ambassadors to build up the confidence for other employees to at least consider testing the waters and find out what they’re missing out on.

3. What are people paying too much attention to? And what are they not paying enough attention to?

The first question is easy: nailing down the specific date/month when we will be in a post-COVID new normal phase. No one has a crystal ball so everything you hear is just guesses or in some cases, wishful thinking. Since the resolution of the pandemic will stretch out over at least many months, we may still be seeing mask wearing, social distancing, and hand sanitation be part of our everyday work life for quite a while.

Similarly, people need to pay more attention to figuring out not just how to reopen their offices, but also how to keep them open (i.e. not succumbing to a second wave of COVID this fall/winter). 

There is a natural human tendency to get less cautious about our behaviors (especially mask wearing and social distancing) as our communities reopen. Unfortunately, we forget that even when infection rates are declining, the virus has not been eradicated and that rapid advancements in vaccine development will not make the pandemic go away overnight.

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There’s more where this came from. If you liked hearing about Bertina’s expertise, check out our webinar library for more industry leader return-to-work planning advice. And don’t forget to register for upcoming webinars!