The Great Return to the Office – Are You Prepared?


On May 6, 2020, our B.C. leaders – Dr. Henry, Adrian Dix, and Premier Horgan – provided additional guidelines on how we will enter the next stage of the COVID-19 timeline, and many office landlords and tenants are cautiously preparing for their staff to return to the office. Many of these commercial landlords and tenants are trying to determine how they can safely transition staff and tenants back to the office while maintaining a productive work environment. The following are a few guiding principles that may assist commercial landlords and office tenants to navigate this significant transition.

1. Consider Government Mandates – Stay Up To Date and Informed

It will be critically important for commercial landlords and tenants to maintain an understanding of federal, provincial, and municipal guidelines and regulations applicable to re-opening. The provincial government has noted its intention to ease restrictions, and regulations governing occupancy will likely be a large part of the government’s mandate in the coming weeks and months. Businesses will be obligated to comply with all executive orders surrounding social distancing, personal hygiene, possible curfews, health screenings, and potentially mandatory use of face masks or other personal protective equipment, and landlords, building managers and occupants will need to ensure they continue to stay apprised of any such orders, which are sure to change over time.

2. Create a Social Distancing Plan – Physical Distancing and Sanitization Protocols

Businesses will need to consider when staff should return to the workplace, and what this might look like. Subject to government mandates, owners and tenants need to consider whether buildings are safe for re-entry. Communicating a clear and manageable social distancing plan to everyone that may attend the office will be imperative to transitioning in an effective manner. Here are some ideas to consider for your potential plan:

  • Limit attendance, when possible. Consider allowing some staff to continue working from home, or potentially alternating daily or weekly schedules to allow for proper social distancing. In addition, staggering arrival/departure times may be beneficial as well.
  • Establish an updated cleaning policy and communicate this to staff, clients and visitors. This might include pre-meeting calls to clients to communicate changes, sign-in sheets at reception, or posting new cleaning policies and floor markers throughout your office to provide guidelines and assurances to those attending the office. Ensure the office is stocked with cleaning products, such as sanitizer and soap, for office attendees to access.
  • Reduce points of contacts. This may mean preventing the use of communal coffee and water stations or providing additional copier/printer machines so consistent points of contacts can be reduced. Consider removing magazines and any other communal items from reception.
  • Spatial distance should continue to be monitored in shared spaces, such as kitchens, elevators, and amenity spaces like gyms or cafeterias. Consider restricting access to certain spaces, and otherwise create policies to limit the number of people who can access communal spaces at certain times – creating schedules for use may be effective ways to limit congregation.
3. Staff Preparation ­– Communicate Effectively and Frequently

Employees are the most important asset to any business, and any re-entry plan will need to work for your staff. Early communication and frequent assurances to the staff members are crucial for a successful return to work. Many employees will be anxious about returning to work, so it is important that managers clearly convey what protocols are being put in place, how returning to work can create benefits (particularly with respect to sought-after socialization and productivity), and otherwise advise on possibilities for staff to prepare for re-entry.  Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Be clear about expectations and let your staff know that some of the measures will be temporary. Guidelines from the B.C. authorities will be changing over the next weeks and months and they should be prepared for adjustments.
  • Assign representatives that can conduct tours and provide instructions to staff that are returning to a new office space.
  • Advise on alternate methods that staff can consider to safely travel to and from the office.
  • As above, when possible, communicate alternative options for staff to continue working remotely if there are safety concerns expressed, or if any employees have other obligations (such as child care).

As employers, owners and tenants will need to take special care to consider their legal obligations and should consult legal professionals as necessary to understand their contractual obligations surrounding re-entry – and particularly with respect to developing guidelines for employees that might relate to possible testing/screening, dealing with employees exhibiting symptoms, and regulating hygiene practices. For each employer, these considerations will be on a case-by-case basis, and we encourage employers to reach out to our employment team if you have questions or require legal assistance.

4. Talk to your Building Manager or Landlord – Potential Financial and Legal Ramifications

Now is the time to start discussing return to work protocols with your building manager. Cooperation between commercial landlords and tenants will be imperative to a seamless re-entry. Ensure that the appropriate cleaning methods are being followed as some office buildings can see hundreds, or even thousands, of individuals on a daily basis. Topics that will need to be discussed might include elevator access and capacity (including the number of people allowed in an elevator at a time), cleaning schedules to confirm various shared areas of the office are being regularly cleaned throughout the day, and possibly signage to communicate any new COVID-19 building policies to attendees.

Financial stability will one of the primary objectives driving re-entry. Throughout the pandemic, many commercial tenants have reached out to their legal team to consider whether rent obligations may be deferred or even forgiven as a result of COVID-19 and the state of emergency.   While every lease is different and should be considered on a case by case basis, the answer will likely be that it is very unlikely rent is suspended or abated. That said, many landlords are experiencing pressure to mitigate financial losses, and countless owners have been working with tenants to provide some form of relief, wherever possible. As it will benefit both parties, landlords and tenants should continue to communicate, and landlords may consider working with and educating tenants about available financial resources as both tenants and landlords may consider taking advantage of government programs, including the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance Program, details here, when appropriate and with joint cooperation.

Ultimately, returning to work will be an exciting time for office owners and tenants. However, it may be worrisome for staff and clients, and any such concerns should be considered and addressed wherever possible. However, with adequate preparation and communication, some of these anxieties might be eased. Re-entry will be an important transition for all involved, and the better businesses can prepare themselves and the workforce, the smoother this transition will be.

For more legal analysis of how COVID may affect your business, or personal affairs, visit Clark Wilson’s COVID-19 Resource and FAQ pages