Daily temperature checks and health screenings have become a regular part of the job for many employees heading back into the workplace.
They are among some of the COVID-19-driven changes in office settings across the Cape Fear region, as companies face expectations to keep the work environment clean for employees, while navigating guidance at the local, state and federal level.
Since early May, daily morning health checks are on the to-do list at Ward and Smith P.A. Employees are now being allowed back in the office, while some can use their discretion to work remotely for the Wilmington law firm.
“I feel like this is the new normal,” said Allen Trask, a civil litigation attorney, who holds several positions of firmwide leadership.
“I think our leadership team is being as nimble as they can be with all of this,” he said. “To me, this is pretty close to the new reality, a reality where folks are still empowered to work remotely and encouraged to do so as makes sense for them. But we still have an underlying office presence to support everyone as well.”
Many businesses at the early start of the COVID-19 pandemic put in place remote working protocols and implemented the technologies to do so. Some people are going back to work while other businesses in the region, however, are still gauging the timing of bringing back much of their office workforce.
Pharmaceutical Product Development (PPD), for instance, still has employees working outside of headquarters in downtown Wilmington.
Officials said that all remote-capable PPD employees based in Wilmington were still working from home in early June, while the company determines when it would be appropriate for them to return to the office.
“To protect our colleagues around the world and to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, our employees are working remotely whenever possible rather than reporting to their respective work locations,” said Ron Garrow, PPD’s executive vice president and chief human resource officer.
“We are closely monitoring the epidemiology and other safety factors related to the pandemic and are assessing the timing of the return of our colleagues to our headquarters in Wilmington, as well as other locations across the globe,” he said. “Again, safety will be the driving force behind those decisions.”
Return-to-work measures at Ward and Smith, however, have been in place since May 11, when a whole host of health and safety measures, kicked in.
Prior to that, starting March 13, the firm had nearly its entire Wilmington office of 37 total employees, including 19 attorneys, working remotely, with only a few exceptions, Trask said.
That was around the time when the pandemic crisis started to reach the United States and significant changes were starting to be made to promote social distancing to keep the spread of the new coronavirus in check.
Following a stay-at-home order that restricted movement of people and kept some businesses from operating, Gov. Roy Cooper implemented phase one of the state’s economic reopening plan on May 8. Phase two started May 22, allowing even more businesses to open, while some, such as bars and gyms, were to remain closed.
In the second-phase orders, the state urged teleworking when possible, among other measures such as setting capacity limits for certain public industries, including restaurants and stores, and limiting the number of people allowed to gather together indoors to 10 people.
Guidelines for reopening offices include keeping up to date with the latest public health guidance, communicating with employees, providing personal protective equipment (PPE) and establishing a response team, according to the N.C. Chamber. Locally, New Hanover County and the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce have also provided several guides and resources for businesses, including a Business Emergency Operations Center.
At MegaCorp Logistics, about 50% of its employees are back in the office, and the firm is letting employees decide when they are ready to come back in, said Lindsey Zurcher, the firm’s human resources director.
The company has implemented a COVID-19 policy for all employees going back into the workplace, she said.
“This includes daily temperature checks when entering the building. Hand sanitizer stations have been set up all throughout the office, and we are practicing social distancing amongst [employees in the] office as well as doing virtual team meetings interviews instead of in person,” she said.
Every employee is given a reusable face mask, she said, adding, “Our employees and their family’s health and safety are most important to us.”
Ward and Smith is now in phase two of its return-to-work plans, which began May 25, when it ramped up its administrative capacity at the offices, Trask said.
Many of the basic protocol measures were implemented in the first phase, such as strongly encouraging the use of firm-issued PPE at the office and having print jobs delivered to attorney’s offices, as well as other social distancing measures. It also put in place at its office, located at 127 Racine Drive, sanitation and cleanliness measures, Trask said.
In the second phase, “we continue to allow anybody who wants to work remotely to do so, especially highrisk folks, people who have children at home, or who are caregivers,” Trask said.
There’s only a certain extent, however, that companies can prepare for employees’ full return to the office because so much is still unknown at this time, he said.
Some companies are still monitoring the spread of COVID-19, hoping for a vaccination and other research to come about before employees report back to company buildings. Meanwhile, guidance and restrictions have businesses’ hands tied to bring back normal operations.
“To some extent, we are all looking to the governor and other governmental authority for guidance. And we’re receiving that and then doing the best we can to not only implement those guidelines but also find a balance between safety and operation,” Trask said.
During the statewide stay-at-home orders, Intracoastal Realty, which has several offices in Wilmington, closed its doors to the public.
“We allowed our agents to come in and continue to work. Real estate was declared one of the essential businesses along with many others. We were still listing and selling property even during the shutdown,” said Trey Wallace, president of the local real estate firm.
A week after the state implemented phase two reopening plans, Intracoastal Realty reopened the office to staff and the public. The firm put in sanitation stations, wipes, gloves and masks, all optional for the public, he said.
“We put in plastic glass panes at most of our lobbies … like what you would see at banks and grocery stores. Our offices are pretty spread out already,” Wallace said of other measures.
Remote work is still facilitated for all Realtors, he said. The firm, however, had most of its supporting staff for the real estate agents return back in the office during phase two.
“For the nature of our business, we have asked them to be here. It’s not efficient for us to run our business with everybody working from home,” Wallace said. “We feel like we’ve mitigated the risks the best we can. Honestly, people wanted to come back to work. They were tired of being at their house.”
Intracoastal Realty is still using online communications, such as Zoom, and ordered dozens of webcams that it didn’t have before the crisis. All of the firm’s meetings, including manager and sales meetings, are still remote for now, he said.
Wallace said he doubts that the firm will be having sales meetings, which usually have 100 people or more in attendance, for quite some time, due to current state standards for gatherings.
On one hand, the technologies have been a boon, adding new elements to the business. It’s not, however, the same as personal interaction with the client, he said.
“I do think that getting face-toface with people and having in-person conversations is essential to running a good business,” Wallace said. “I think we should accommodate and add these things to our toolbelt. But I hear about these companies that just want to send everybody home for the next year or two, and I just don’t think that’s very smart. I think the people element, and the interactions and the office environment, is hugely important at least to our business.”
For both the real estate industry and business of practicing law, professionals said the digital transformation can’t replace personal interaction with employees and clients.
“There’s just no replacement for in-person, one-on-one personal contact. These tools are great, but they are not a replacement for it,” Trask said. “Being able to appear before a judge, and read the room, and tailor your arguments along the way is a little harder to do when you are on a Webex platform.”