Does Anyone Want to Go Back to the Office?

8 min read • Jun 08, 2020 • Joe Kukura

Letting employees work from home during coronavirus is the trendy status symbol for many of America’s most well-known workplaces. Amazon and Microsoft are keeping their employees working from home until October, while Facebook, Google, and Salesforce are letting them work from home for the rest of 2020.

But most of us do not work at big tech firms, and these decisions are a lot more difficult in sectors like factory manufacturing and trucking. Consider the Ford Motor Company, which reopened their assembly plants on May 18, but then had to shut down 2 plants over the next 2 days as employees tested positive for COVID-19. 

There are consequences to reopening at the wrong time. According to Business Insider, China, Germany, Iran, Lebanon, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia all reopened and then had to close again after new infections spiked with the reopening.

Businesses are forced to contemplate these difficult options as we attempt to reopen the US economy. Even if you do reopen your business, there’s no guarantee customers will come back. A Marketwatch analysis says that “businesses that are still functioning have revenue down about 50% to 70%” compared to the same time last year. Reopening your small business under the coronavirus will be costlier than doing business before, with all the new requirements for sanitizing surfaces and physically modifying your space with items like plexiglass or shower curtain-type modifications. 

With additional costs, hobbled revenue, and nervous employees, do you really want to reopen your business now? It can be done, but let’s take a look at some of the crucial considerations you’ll need to take into account.

Is My Business Allowed to Reopen?

Some types of businesses in some states are not even allowed to reopen right now. CNN has a regularly updated list of all 50 states’ phases of reopening. Certain types of niche businesses like cleaning services, beauty salons, and restaurants and bars have very different restrictions by state on whether they’re allowed to reopen and the precautions they have to take.

You may see lines around the block at essential businesses, but that doesn’t mean business is booming for them. It may mean they’re operating with strict limits on how many customers can be in the store, and those waiting outside are forced to space themselves further apart. There may be additional requirements on your business on top of just wearing masks, like temperature-taking, hand sanitizing stations, and far more frequent cleaning of surfaces.

Do Customers Want to Return?

A new Politico poll assessed the general public on whether they were ready to return to nonessential businesses. “Nearly half (46%) believe that their state’s governor should allow nonessential businesses to be open in their state in the next month to reduce financial difficulties for businesses and people,” the poll found. “About half (51%) think nonessential businesses in their state should be closed until the spread of COVID-19 has been contained.”

Those numbers vary by region and political affiliation, according to the poll’s details. But in a broad sense, about half of the country is ready to come back, and the other half is not. We’ve come to expect 50-50 splits on national opinion, but from a business standpoint, half of your customers being unwilling to return represents a serious drop in business.

“One day, we opened, we only had one customer,” a Minnesota restaurant owner told his local paper City Pages. You may have some customers eager to come back, but you should not expect anything close to business as usual at first.

Do Employees Want to Return?

The recent increase in unemployment benefits included in the CARES Act has had an unusual side effect. Some workers are making better money with their enhanced unemployment and are hesitant to risk returning to work and making less money. 

That’s not unreasonable. If employees are making minimum wage, it’s difficult to see why they would be eager to return and potentially contract a fatal virus. But some states have started websites to report employees who decline their offers to return, so the issue may drive a wedge between businesses and their workers.

Making this even more problematic, a business could suffer consequences on its PPP loan forgiveness if employees don’t return. That loan program requires you to pay your employees to receive PPP loan forgiveness. But if you don’t have employees on the rolls, you can’t pay them and can’t get the loan forgiven.

“This forgivable loan may not be forgivable,” South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Frank Knapp told Marketplace

Consider that employees may be hesitant to return because they’re more concerned about their long-term health than with milking a short-term government benefit. Take time to hear out their anxieties.

“It’s important that it be a two-way dialogue,” employment attorney Brian McGinnis says in that Marketplace report. “The first step to being able to accommodate, or alleviate, the concerns is knowing what those are. The more constructive dialogue, the better it has tended to work out.” 

And realize that if you fire people, then you have to attract new employees in a very challenging environment. The right route may be to communicate to your employees that you have a solid workplace safety plan, as people will be more productive on the job if they feel safe.

How Can I Reopen My Business Safely?

If you’re going to take the plunge and open back up, it’s important to consider the ethics of reopening your business. The safety of your customers and employees has to be the number 1 priority. To that end, the US Chamber of Commerce has an exhaustive Small Business Reopening Guide with plenty of links to state-by-state guides for safety compliance. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also offers detailed Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 full of excellent advice on managing workplaces with high, medium, and low risks of exposure.

It will be a challenge to get the latex gloves, masks, or other PPE you’ll need to conduct business. “Things are 10 times more expensive,” a Baton Rouge medical spa owner told her local paper, The Advocate.

In that same report, a hardware store manager said that “Demand is through the roof for hand sanitizer, disinfectants, masks and gloves,” and that “The most difficult thing to get has been the N95 masks.” Reopening is likely to put you in a spot where you’re desperately working with new suppliers you may not know to find incredibly scarce items that are traditionally not associated with your business. 

Effective Strategies for Reopening

Many reopened businesses will be forced to operate at a fraction of their previous capacity, so it may be tough to turn a profit. If there’s any way you can continue to do business virtually or online as long as possible, that may be your best option.

You may be able to develop an online store or experiment with curbside pickup, walk-up sales,  delivery, or other options where customers do not enter your store and are always 6 feet away from your staff.

Maybe you can pivot your business to supplying hard-to-find pandemic products to customers or other businesses. Do your suppliers sell items that are hard to find at grocery stores? You can sell those directly or make them a bonus item for purchase incentive deals. This may also be the right time to sell some assets or take on more debt with a small business loan.  

The most important consideration in deciding to reopen is whether your business—and employees—can survive. But if you can figure out how to meet that difficult challenge, you might help change the US business landscape for the better.

Joe Kukura

Joe Kukura is a San Francisco freelance writer whose work also appears in SF Weekly and SFist. He’s written financial advice for NerdWallet, tech industry analysis for the Daily Dot, sports content for NBC Bay Area, and good, old-fashioned clickbait for Thrillist.