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Part Four of the COVID-19 Roadmap Series: Ensuring a Safe Workplace – Reimagining the Physical Workspace and Business Travel

Given the challenges presented by COVID-19, many businesses must consider large-scale, transformational changes to their operations. As social distancing continues and safety concerns pervade the public consciousness, adjustments to the physical workspace and business travel practices will be necessary to reflect these new considerations. In Part 4 of our COVID-19 Roadmap Series, we outline important planning steps and concerns employers need to consider relating to physical workspaces and business travel. 

Physical Workspace Modifications & Social Distancing

In many industries, recent trends have led to the creation of open work areas that allow workers to interact closely with clients, customers, and each other. In light of COVID-19 and social distancing protocols, businesses will need to reevaluate the layout of their physical spaces prior to employees returning to the workplace.  Relevant physical modifications may include the installation or reconfiguration of:

  • Physical barriers between workstations, or between employees and customers (e.g., plastic barriers or dividers in previously open workspaces);

  • Signage delineating permissible use of spaces (e.g., partitioning conference rooms, cafeterias, break areas, and workspaces consistent with social distancing);

  • Physical markers in high traffic areas to keep employees six feet apart;

  • Touchless systems for entry, garbage disposal, or personal hygiene (e.g., faucets and dispensers);

  • Portions of restrooms to create adequate distance between individuals; and

  • High-efficiency filters to increase ventilation rates in the workplace.

In addition, employers should consider implementing rules regarding shared spaces and equipment, including restricting the sharing of equipment (e.g. phones, headsets, desks, and computers) and appliances (e.g. refrigerators, microwaves, coffee machines).

Businesses should assess the flow of traffic when planning for the reconfiguration of physical workspaces, including movement into and out of the building, as well as internal movement within the workspace itself.  Further, businesses in multi-tenant buildings or shared office spaces should proactively work with property owners and building management to ensure there are safety measures in place.  Employers should consider the following strategies where possible to further workplace safety:

  • Adjusting work schedules and implementing staggered shifts or rotations to prevent higher occupancy levels that might flout social distancing rules;

  • Restricting or decreasing the number of in-person meetings with clients or vendors;

  • Limiting workplace access to those individuals cleared in advance or by appointment; 

  • Designating one-way foot traffic in hallways and through doors where possible;

  • Providing open access to stairwells for those who do not wish to use the elevator;

  • Reducing potential exposure in elevators, including limiting the number of elevator occupants, providing floor markings encouraging distancing while in the elevator, or providing tissues and/or sanitary products for use when pushing elevator buttons; and

  • Encouraging employees to keep internal movement to a minimum (e.g. utilizing phone, email, and internal communication systems as a safer alternative to in-person meetings).

A New Paradigm for Business Travel

As state and local authorities revise or revoke stay-at-home orders and worksites reopen, local, interstate, and international business travel needs may arise.  Employers are encouraged to review state and local travel restrictions when considering any type of business travel.  Some states may require arriving out-of-state travelers and returning residents to quarantine for 14 days and other states may continue to operate under stay-at-home orders.  Most foreign countries are also currently placing entry or quarantine restrictions on travelers who have been in the U.S. within the past 14 days.  In turn, the CDC recommends travelers returning from foreign countries stay home for 14 days after international travel, monitor their health, and practice social distancing.  Moreover, flight restrictions and cancellations continue worldwide, which may present challenges to employees attempting to return from international travel.  Employers should continue to review the CDC’s guidance on travel, monitor transportation disruptions and COVID-19 spread, and update their business travel policies accordingly.

Reassessing “Essential” Travel

With the possibility of ongoing COVID resurgences in various locales (particularly for global employers), and given the economic downturn, it may be advisable to reevaluate which business trips are seen as essential. Employers should prioritize assessing business travel that will become available first.  Most companies will likely take a phased approach to restarting their engines; giving this some advanced thought and communicating the employer’s plans across the company will help ensure teams are aligned.  This may include or require engaging in conversations with clients or other stakeholders to determine when projects can be staffed and meetings held remotely.  The CDC has advised that businesses implement flexible meeting and travel options where possible. This assessment should also focus on establishing narrow criteria as to what is deemed required inter-office travel. 

In addition to client expectations, employers will need to evaluate and manage employee expectations regarding travel.  Although employers can require business travel where it is compliant with government orders and is between non-restricted areas, employers should also assess how they can make employees feel more comfortable and safe when traveling.  Depending on personal circumstances (e.g., where individuals are immunocompromised or have susceptible family members), certain employees will feel more anxious about travelling than others.  Further, other employees may be reluctant because such travel may negatively impact their ability to provide childcare during the travel period.  Employers should therefore establish guidance in response to potential concerns keeping an eye toward flexibility.  Flexible adjustments may include:

  • Alternative options for transportation (e.g., for short-range business trips, employers could consider allowing employees to drive or travel by train as opposed to by air);

  • Offering safety-oriented protections (e.g., providing more strenuous PPE beyond what is required by the CDC or OSHA); 

  • Engaging safety-focused vendors and ensuring that employees are planning travel through appropriate avenues (i.e., confirming that hotels, airlines, and client locations have taken appropriate safety precautions); and

  • Addressing employees’ refusals to travel and considering potential accommodation (e.g., whether the employee can work remotely, may qualify for an accommodation under disability law, or whether the fear can be effectively addressed by taking additional containment measures).

International Business Travel Suggestions

The CDC recommends that companies requiring international business travel exercise increased precautions, particularly as there have been extensive issues repatriating U.S. employees from abroad in light of flight cancellations and border restrictions. If employees are traveling outside the United States, employers should have plans and practices in place for the employees to seek medical care as needed.  The CDC recommends sick employees follow company policy for obtaining medical care or contact a U.S. healthcare provider to assist them with finding appropriate medical assistance in the destination country.  Employers should make resources readily available to employees based upon their country of destination.  In addition, OSHA urges employers to communicate to workers that the U.S. State Department cannot provide Americans traveling or living abroad with medications or supplies, even in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.  As COVID-19 outbreak conditions evolve, travel into or out of certain countries may not be possible, safe, or advisable.

Employers should also prepare for the possibility that employees engaging in international business travel might experience substantial departure or arrival delays. Creating contingency plans now, including remote work and lodging accommodations for employees who cannot return to the U.S. for longer than expected, will minimize the potential for operational frustrations.  However, please note that employees may require work authorizations or visas to be able to work abroad, even for short periods. 

Contingency Planning & Insurance

Things may look a bit different once the COVID-19 crisis is over.  Businesses should take the time to work with their executive and finance teams to understand the scope of their budgets available for travel over various periods.  In addition, employers may want to consult insurance brokers to ensure that all insurance protections needed in this environment, including travel insurance, workers’ compensation, and general liability, are covered.

Parting Thoughts & More to Come

Given the uncertainties that remain, business “as usual” may look quite different after the COVID-19 crisis is over.  Employers are encouraged to take the time to evaluate safety protocols now, and reimagining their businesses’ physical workspaces and business travel policies will help to improve business operations and employee well-being in the months and years to come.

Next up in our Roadmap Series, we delve into best practices for employers seeking to screen and test employees during this pandemic.  

©1994-2020 Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, P.C. All Rights Reserved.National Law Review, Volume X, Number 141
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Delaney's work primarily involves litigation and counseling on federal and state employment matters before federal and state courts and administrative agencies against individual and class action claims of discrimination, sexual misconduct, harassment, and wage and hour violations. Her clients have included Fortune 500 companies, insurance companies, prominent medical providers, manufacturers, and luxury fitness facilities.

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