Creating a Safe Workplace During COVID-19
Christopher McCoy, Contributing Writer

This short story by Christopher McCoy, Greenleaf contributing writer, illustrates applying trauma-informed design to an office coping with reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic. The techniques used in this fictional setting come from a variety of sources.

 
Like many, Michael feared returning to the office for work. He had only been at his company a few months before the pandemic. Michael lived with his immune-compromised mother, and with the governor signaling an end to stay-at-home policies, contact with asymptomatic carriers of the virus was going to escalate. 

Michael worried that his mother could die from him unwittingly bringing home the coronavirus. His girlfriend had already lost a relative to COVID-19, and Michael therefore took the hit by not meeting with her for nearly 12 weeks. 

Buying groceries was stressful enough for Michael, especially, when many people were not following guidelines on social distancing or wearing a mask at the supermarket.

Michael had been working remotely for three months now. While he sat at breakfast, reading yesterday’s newspaper with his mother, his phone buzzed and clinked as he received an email notification from work, and a split second later an audio text from his boss Javier. He listened to the audio text. 

“Hey Michael, I’m going to be honest with you. Going back to the building is not an ideal situation, but we are going to try to make this work and keep you and everyone else on staff safe from getting the virus. The CEO just sent out an email and it has some questions… like a list… or something. He is trying to get us back in the best way possible.”

Michael looked at his mother, took a deep breath and then touched the email icon on his phone. The email from Rick the CEO was brief. It got right to the point.

Michael,

Thank you for all your hard work. I wanted to get your perspective on a few things. 

  1. What do you miss most about coming to the office? 
  2. What are your biggest concerns (if any) about returning to the office when the stay at home order is lifted? 
  3. Are there any policies or protocols we can implement that will help make you feel more comfortable returning to the office? 

Best Regards,

Rick

After reading the email, Michael sighed and sat back down in the kitchen. It seemed the CEO wanted to check the right boxes to show concern. At least Michael had his own office with a door he could close, he thought to himself. At least, I’m not stuffed like some junior staff into the conference room at one big table. 

Michael began to write down a list of answers to the CEO’s questions and decided to run them by Javier on their 8:30 AM videoconference before replying to the CEO’s email. 

While Michael wrote his list, Javier knew several concerns all his teammates would have and pressure-tested things with HR and the CEO over the phone. Rick was open to all suggestions, he was engaged, and insisted upon honest feedback from all of his employees. 

“A new floor-plan for the office could help us avoid cross traffic between employees and also separate those working in open spaces,” said Javier, during the phone call with HR and Rick. “Cubicles could be spaced out more than six feet apart in the conference room and we could get rid of the table. We could also place the cubicles on one side of the room by the windows, so we exceed official guidelines on social distancing. Maybe we could keep the windows open too.”

“That sounds reasonable,” Rick said. “Before the outbreak we received a hefty shipment of hand sanitizer. I’ll make sure that there is a bottle on every desk along with a mask. My partner also suggested I get some houseplants so that everyone feels more welcome when they come back to the office.”

Luckily, the building they leased had also updated their air circulation system, after much nagging from Rick, and other companies renting space within it. Moreover, occupancy limits were set for the elevators to avoid crowding. The stairs were also available for employees to use. 

When Michael and Javier got together on their 8:30 AM videoconference, Michael had another suggestion for the office concerning general office hygiene. 

“Javier, I heard that there is a low likelihood of transmitting the virus to another person from surfaces, but I still worry about the possibility of that happening here at the office,” he said

Could we make the job easier on the cleaning people by making sure everyone keeps their desk bare so that the desks are easily cleaned at night? I’m not worried about myself. I’m worried about getting my mom sick.”

“Put that all in the email to Rick,” Javier said. “He’s been all ears on suggestions. He wants to make this work, so we actually have a company going forward.”

Michael went ahead and answered Rick’s email. He explained his idea for the clean desk policy and voiced his concern over his living situation with his mother. He emphasized that he did not want to get his mother sick by returning to the office. 

Rick sent back an email in response.

Michael,

Thank you for your suggestion concerning a clean desk policy. I’ve added that to the list of changes that we are going to make. I was unaware that your mother was in a high-risk group regarding coronavirus. I hope that she maintains her health. 

We’re trying to make this work for everyone, and I don’t see a problem with you continuing to work remotely, if you would prefer to do so. 

Best Regards,

Rick

Michael was relieved. He thanked Rick for the company’s informed approach and for designing solutions to what had seemed to be an unwelcome dilemma. Much of Michael’s worry had been over nothing. Rick had been serious about being engaged with his employees and wasn’t just paying lip service to them and their concerns.

Maybe this new job will work out after all, he thought to himself.