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How companies are preparing for you to go back to work

At some point, the biggest American companies are going to tell their employees it’s time to leave home and return to work.

As people begin shopping there again, retailers like Levi Strauss said they’ll be looking at consumer habits and adapt accordingly once stores open in the U.S. Other retailers are expecting an acceleration of the shift to online shopping as people are forced to order goods online during the lockdown.

Returning to work will almost certainly happen in waves, driven by consumer demand and employer desperation, said Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

“Those jobs – dentists, health care, barber shops – there’s a backlog of demand. Then there’s a similar category, like restaurants and bars, where people may be cooped up for so long that they’re desperate to go out to eat or get a drink. For other industries, the same urgency may not exist. It’s going to take a while for people to start buying new cars and new homes. And for some industries, like retail and airlines, things may never get back to normal.”

Employers in rural areas and suburbs that saw fewer confirmed cases of coronavirus and resulting deaths will have an easier time convincing workers it’s safe to return to the office than cities such as New York and New Orleans, he said.

“If you drum it into everybody’s heads that they should be six feet away from each other and then you go back to an office and you’re in the cubicles or an open office plan, in particular, that will be creepy for people,” he said.

Any return to work effort will be a gradual process rather than setting a national “Go back to the office” day, said Gordon.

Still, many companies are already in a hurry to get employees back to work, Cappelli said.

“We weren’t set up to do distance working. In most places, we just sent people home and hoped for the best.”

Parents can’t go back to work if schools and day cares aren’t open.

Another is simply having enough knowledge about the spread of the disease, which comes down to testing as many people as possible.

Several state governors talked Tuesday with Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration, about plans to get people back to work, The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week.

“You need to be able to identify people who are sick and have the tools to enforce their isolation and. You have to have it at a scale we’ve never done before. We need leadership.”

Kovacevich said when there’s evidence new cases are going down rather than up, sick people should stay quarantined while people who have recovered from the virus and others under 55 should go back to work if they’re comfortable with it.

Simply getting beyond the peak of cases shouldn’t be enough to get people back to work, said Gordon.

Rather, new cases will have to drop to nearly zero for the public to be comfortable returning to work and begin patronizing bars and restaurants, said Gordon.

Employers have a relatively low legal risk, but a high reputational one, if they rush people back to the office, said Jonathan Segal, an employment attorney at law firm Duane Morris who specializes in human resources and minimizing companies’ legal and business risks.

In addition to certain industries reopening before others, companies will also likely introduce employees slowly back to the workplace, rather than bringing everyone back at once, Segal said.

Companies that have been able to sustain with employees working from home may want to extend those policies until workers are comfortable coming back on their own, Segal said.

“In the absence of an all-clear, employees may say, ‘I don’t want to come back to work and if I do, I want that to be the exception not the rule. I want to come in on Wednesday and sign what I need to sign and pick things up. I want to come in at 4 in the morning,'” Segal said.

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz and president Scott Kirby, who takes over in May, outlined their concerns for employees last month, saying “Based on how doctors expect the virus to spread and how economists expect the global economy to react, we expect demand to remain suppressed for months after that, possibly into next year. We will continue to plan for the worst and hope for a faster recovery, but no matter what happens, taking care of each of our people will remain our number one priority. That means being honest, fair and upfront with you: if the recovery is as slow as we fear, it means our airline and our workforce will have to be smaller than it is today,” they wrote.

“You’ve got companies sending armies of people from point to point when we have teleconferencing and when most of what we’re looking at is in easy-to-share digital form,” Gordon said.

Automakers could look to China for answers on how to safely restart business activity in the U.S. While demand for cars won’t bounce back quickly, unlike in other industries, factory workers have a clear outline on what it would take to return to production.

Carmakers and suppliers in China have implemented protocols to ensure working conditions were safe to return to for employees.

Aside from extensively cleaning and sanitizing work areas, there are new processes to keep workers more separated, including when entering and exiting plants and offices.

Fiat Chrysler said Wednesday the company has implemented such protocols to “Gradually and safely return” to work in China for white-collar and blue-collar employees.

The Italian-American automaker said earlier this week it plans to begin restarting its U.S. and Canadian plants on May 4 with additional protocols such as redesigning work stations to maintain proper social distancing and expanding cleaning protocols at all of its locations.

“As a result of these actions, we will only restart operations with safe, secure and sanitized workplaces to protect all of our employees,” the company said in an emailed statement, citing officials have been working with government officials and unions on the procedures.

Tesla head of North American human resources Valerie Workman wrote an email to workers Tuesday indicating that the carmaker also intended to resume production of electric cars at its Fremont, California car plant on May 4, CNBC reported Tuesday.

“We have a team working on return to work,” he said, citing a grant program for small businesses in the city and a program that allows the city to buy meals from local restaurants to support them and give them to Detroit police, fire, EMS, and healthcare workers.

Unlike many industries, investment banks and other financial services have been able to transition to an at-home working environment fairly smoothly.

Nearly all Goldman Sachs employees were working from home in about two weeks, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Since tests will likely be given first to anyone in close contact with sick patients, such as health workers, it may take months for rank-and-file Americans to get tested.

Goldman is in talks to purchase infrared body scanners to screen people coming into buildings who are obviously sick.

Temperature scanners are one method to test for fevers and illness and should also help with the psychological barrier of workers’ feeling safe at he office.

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon wrote in a letter to shareholders on Monday that returning to work can be expedited if tests are made widely available that can determine if people have recovered and are now relatively immune from COVID-19.

“Initially, we need a buffer period of days or weeks for people to be tested, and then for those who test negative for the virus, we need to discover whether virus antibodies appear through serology testing,” Dimon said.

Stores selling apparel and other discretionary items have been temporarily shut, with hundreds of thousands of retail workers being furloughed.

Stalled by the coronavirus, another mall owner in the U.S. has already rewritten the blueprint for its American Dream project, still in the works, in New Jersey.

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