When he arrives at work each morning in downtown Portland, Ben Bond enters an office that looks the same but is markedly different from the place he left in March.

Bond walks through a lobby with a “sanitation station” table covered with masks, neck gaiters, bottles of gel, and hand wipes in a bucket that reads, “If you touch it, wipe it.”

A technical support specialist at workers’ comp insurance provider The MEMIC Group, Bond ascends a staircase labeled for up or down traffic, depending on the time of day. He’ll skip the elevator, which now can carry only two people at a time.

When Bond starts up his computer, a daily wellness check-in app will ask him to confirm that he’s symptom-free. It then will bring up a “contact record” screen for him to note any time he’s within 6 feet of a colleague for more than 10 seconds. And if someone needs help with their laptop, for instance, Bond will slip on a pair of gloves and receive the equipment through a Plexiglas transfer window in the IT department.

At lunch, Bond will put on a face covering to walk to the cafeteria and retrieve a bag he brought from home. Anything left in the refrigerator is thrown away every night.

Bond’s not a coffee drinker but would be disappointed if he were. The cafeteria coffee station is shut down. Luckily, a Starbucks is nearby.

“It’s still very quiet in here,” Bond said. “You can tell it’s phase one. But I think they did a good job of making us feel safe coming back.”

Bond came back to the office June 8, in the vanguard of Maine office workers slowly returning to workplaces that were evacuated three months ago to blunt the surging pandemic.

How many Maine office workers will follow his lead – and when – is unclear. What does seem certain, at least until there’s a vaccine for COVID-19, is that the office environment as it existed prior to March is not coming back.

Tony Payne, senior vice president of external affairs at MEMIC, rides an elevator with a maximum capacity of two people during the pandemic. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

MANY WON’T GO BACK

At a time of year when office culture typically downshifts into summer vacation mode, many Maine employers are still deciding how to conform their work spaces to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and coax anxious workers back to the office.

Others are calculating the pros and cons of keeping part of their workforce at home for the foreseeable future. The past three months have shown that many companies can function well remotely.

And many workers don’t want to go back to what they left. A recent survey of 7,150 Maine state employees contains a striking sentiment: Only 5 percent of respondents want to return full time to their offices, 36 percent want to keep working from home and 38 percent would like a combination of office and work-from-home.

Those and other variables have created a matrix in which employer responses are rapidly evolving, as seen with businesses observed by Deb Neuman, who heads the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce.

Neuman said she’s aware of an accounting firm that will keep its office closed and have staff work remotely for the rest of the year. A bank administration office plans to reopen this summer with staggered shifts – each employee will rotate two weeks in the office, then two weeks at home. A law firm has closed its reception area, is encouraging work-from-home and has limited the number of workers in the office through 2020.

“Generally speaking, unless a business depends on the doors being open to serve customers, most are remaining closed with limited or no staff returning to the office, but rather working remotely,” Neuman said.

Then there’s the specter of a so-called second wave of coronavirus sending Maine and the country back into shutdown mode. Recent surges of COVID-19 cases in other states such as Florida, Texas and Arizona have underscored that fear.

“I think we all have to be concerned about that,” said Tony Payne, MEMIC’s senior vice president for external affairs. “All our planning has included being able to pivot and pull back, if necessary.”

At MEMIC, a workers’ compensation insurer with a focus on workplace safety, only 20 percent of the 350-person staff at its two Portland offices has so far returned, and, like Bond, they are volunteers. The company hopes to reach 40 percent in-office staffing after Monday. Beyond that, it’s hard to say whether the company can maintain the required physical distancing with its cubicle layout to bring more people back, at least all at the same time.

“We’re talking about taking it to 40 percent until Labor Day before we make another move,” Payne said.

A CAUTIOUS APPROACH

MEMIC has a reopening plan that’s more extensive than most – it even produced two videos to guide workers through office re-entry. But its process does highlight a watchword for employers trying to reopen offices amid COVID-19: “caution.”

A national survey released in early June by Littler, a global employment and labor law practice with an office in Portland, found only 18 percent of companies planned to bring workers back immediately after stay-at-home orders expired. Forty-two percent said they’d take a “wait-and-see” approach to gauge the outcome at other businesses. And a surprising 50 percent of respondents said they not only were considering an extension of remote work, but would be requiring it, to reduce office costs.

For those reopening, 90 percent were increasing their cleaning efforts, 86 percent were requiring or encouraging face coverings and 60 percent were planning health screenings, including temperature and symptom checks.

Labor Day seems to be the target period that the majority of companies are aiming for, using a phased approach, according to Timothy Powell, an associate in Littler’s Portland office.

In general, Powell noted, companies legally can require their workers to return to the office. But they should communicate with their staff and document all the things they’re doing to create a safer workplace. And if a worker raises disability or medical issues, “alarm bells should go off,” Powell added. Under federal law, companies need to make “reasonable accommodations” for such people, which could include working from home.

The most successful reopening plans will include a dialogue between management and workers, according to David Ciullo, president of the Human Resources Association of Southern Maine.

Ben Bond, an IT tech support employee at MEMIC, works at his desk on Tuesday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Aside from following CDC best practices, employers need to listen to worker concerns and try to balance competing desires. Some employees are eager to return to the office, perhaps because they are more social or are distracted at home. Others may have child care problems this summer because a camp didn’t operate, and need to keep working remotely.

“How you treat your employees now will determine how they remember you later,” Ciullo said.

WHO WILL RETURN – AND WHEN?

That dialogue is underway in state government. Roughly 9,000 state employees, or 85 percent of personnel excluding public safety workers, have been doing their jobs remotely since March. Each agency has differing responsibilities, but Kyle Hadyniak, a spokesman for the state Department of Administrative and Financial Services, said Gov. Janet Mills has given commissioners the task of determining which employees should be asked to return to work, and when that should happen.

“However, if operational needs do not require returning to the office and employees are successfully working from home, the administration has asked them to continue doing so for the time being, to maximize physical distancing,” Hadyniak said.

The department has set up a transition team to work through the reopening process. Reacting to responses from the employee survey, Hadyniak said the administration is sensitive to the concerns some workers have about returning and is seeking input from the recently reconvened Statewide Building Safety Labor-Management Committee.

A sanitation station in the lobby of MEMIC provides hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes and face coverings. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The committee has met twice and is discussing specifics that include the timing and prioritization of returning to the office, potentials for staggered shifts and remote work, protocols for interacting with the public, vendors and co-workers, and protective equipment.

“Not everything has been thought through yet,” said Dean Staffieri, president of Maine Service Employees Association Local 1989, a labor union representing state employees. “It’s definitely a process, how to get buildings open and what’s the safest route.”

Staffieri said he’s encouraged by the flexibility being expressed by the Mills administration. He said that will be important if there’s another shutdown.

“I’m certainly worried about how we’re going to function in the winter,” Staffieri said. “But we’ve shown over the past 100 days that (union) employees can function. And how quickly people could move back home, if there’s another outbreak.”

SOME PLANS MORE AGGRESSIVE

While many employers appear to be embracing hybrid solutions to reopening the office, others have determined that their businesses function best with the majority of workers at their desks.

Signage throughout MEMIC’s Old Port office remind employees to practice social distancing, wear masks and sanitize surfaces. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Clark Associates, a Portland-based insurance provider, has 85 workers at its headquarters and began bringing back volunteers on May 4.

“We have people who find working from home just doesn’t work,” said Diana Miville, Clark’s human resources director.

Clark returned roughly 25 percent of its staff in May and is shooting for a full return by the end of July. Clark’s management team determined that, overall, the company didn’t have the right technology for telecommuting, in part because many workers don’t have company laptops and some had phone problems at home.

“We learned a lot through telecommuting,” she said. “But it’s our goal to get almost everyone back in the office.”

Clark also operates in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, so it has had to juggle safety measures that may go beyond CDC guidelines. For instance, New Hampshire requires temperature screenings. Maine doesn’t, but Clark asks all workers to complete a symptom survey each day via mobile phone before coming inside.

CES Inc., a growing engineering and environmental consulting firm, moved 60 workers in June from Brewer to an office building in downtown Bangor. There’s enough desk space for social distancing, and the company is using Plexiglas dividers and airport-style stanchion-and-belt systems to designate space.

As does Clark, CES makes exceptions for workers with high-risk conditions or other agreed-upon reasons for not wanting to come back.

CES will make alternate provisions for employees as needed, said Denis St. Peter, the president and chief executive, but even with the best technology, it’s easier to collaborate when most workers are together. And by using face masks, sanitizing stations and all the other protocols, St. Peter said the company can achieve its goal of getting most workers safely back inside.

“We feel that from everything we’ve seen that you don’t have to go overboard on the CDC requirements,” St. Peter said. “If you go overboard, it impairs your ability to work.”

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