Reopening an Agency During Covid

How we're trying to balance physical, mental and financial health

As a small business that lives and breathes enterprise, collaboration and risk management, we are no strangers to going down the road less traveled or, considering the current environment, walking one seldom traveled at all.

In mid-March, like so many others, in an abundance of caution, we closed our doors and became a virtual agency. Working remotely, we found that while we were able to check the boxes and have some peaks of success along the way, they didn't sustain to become the new baselines as they had in the past. Sparks don't fly through a computer screen or over a phone. Innovation and connection so present across a room just weren't happening as they usually do. We felt momentum slipping at a time when our also remote client colleagues needed us (and it) most.

So, despite some anxiety and risk, we reopened our offices on Monday, Sept. 14, six months and a day after our decision to work remotely. And coming back together wasn't as easy as simply unlocking the door. Providing a safe and comfortable workplace required an incredible amount of planning, a complete rethinking of certain aspects of our business model, and precision in the details of execution.

We are strong believers that a thriving company is made up of thriving human beings who possess more than physical health. Our aptitude, attitude and amplitude are based on the notion of more complete wellness that optimally strikes a balance between physical, mental and financial health.

Like many others, we could see that continuing to work remotely might provide a higher level of security around potential virus transmission, but the risks were considerable for the business and for each of us personally and professionally. The challenges of reopening amid an unrelenting pandemic were significant, however. Anxiety about possible virus spread came from team members and their families, but comfort and security notwithstanding, the agency could not continue to thrive working remotely. Water cooler and hallway conversations had ceased. Opportunistic thinking and the alchemy of collaboration were missing.

Ultimately, we came to the conclusion that accepting and doing our best to mitigate the risk of working together physically would result in fully healthy employees, whose efforts on behalf of clients would be our best opportunity to deliver continued financial health for the agency and, in turn, for all of us and our families.

From the beginning, our reopening plan has rested on the fact that we are located in one of the safest places in the country. Maine consistently ranks best for pandemic outcomes of all 50 states. Our positives-per-capita rates and hospitalization rates continue to stay low. We were able to build on this foundation laid by our community at large and capitalize on other factors already in our favor when it comes to reopening our business. Our physical space calculates out to almost 500 square feet per employee, and our staff is a close-knit community who care about each other.

With considerable research and a serious commitment to adhering to elevated standards of sanitation and best practices to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus, we all agreed to sign a pledge that holds each of us accountable to one another.

Some of what we promised each other was simple and common sense:

● Wearing a mask.

● Wiping down the water cooler after use (the door handles and faucets in the bathroom, too).

● Taking our temperature before coming into the office every day.

● Staying home if we or anyone in our house is not feeling well.

● Not traveling out of state (or if we do, getting a test before we come into the office).

We also engaged experts to help us meet and exceed best practices, to offer and maintain a safe workplace. We spoke with healthy workplace consultants who helped us organize our open-concept space to allow for proper social distancing. We invested in and installed topical cleaning stations around copiers, water coolers and other shared equipment. We bought and distributed gallons of hand sanitizer and surface wipes for bathrooms, conference rooms and our cell phones. We even made custom masks and agency lunchboxes.

But most importantly, we made an investment in testing. Lots and lots of testing. We are partnering with a team of experienced infectious-disease doctors, who had worked and published together since the HIV/AIDS crisis. With their guidance, we developed a universal "Well-Worker" testing program tailored to the size and makeup of our agency population. Through continuous monitoring of staff, we are keeping a pulse on any potential cases of Covid-19 that could be going undetected.

As a baseline, we universally tested all employees and required a negative result before anyone could return to the office. Ongoing, four designated cohorts will be tested on a rolling basis, with a group going every three to four days and each member of staff having a test every two weeks. Anyone, at any time and for any reason, can raise their hand if they or a member of their direct family feels like they need a test. If an employee or member of their household presents with a positive test result, it triggers immediate testing of all staff and proper measures taken to ensure that spread is limited. Our testing program is paid for 100 percent by the company as a benefit to employees. We have also made various accommodations for specific employee situations, including but not limited to continued WFH.

So, what did we notice? There was uneasiness on the first day, which was completely expected. We are humans, and change can be unsettling, especially in precarious times. What has happened more quickly than we anticipated, however, is the pace at which the awkwardness of being around each other for the first time in six months shifted to a new type of chemistry we hadn't seen before: a comradeship that feels stronger than in the days and weeks leading up to the office closure.

One final note. We realize that our reopening will be (and already has been) met with skepticism, but that's something we're OK with. There are no right answers, only best guesses. We've done our best to be thoughtful and thorough. We'll be ready to pivot again should it be necessary, but for the moment, we believe we have done the right thing for our clients, for the business and for each other.

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