For a team whose day-to-day centers around the operations and collaboration within our office buildings, the Netsmart Facilities team found themselves in an unfamiliar situation in March of 2020. In cooperation with CDC mandates, Netsmart transitioned to a completely remote workforce in light of the quickly growing COVID-19 pandemic. Our once bustling offices throughout the country grew silent, with empty conference rooms and unoccupied desks. Suddenly, everyone was gone.
Well, not everyone. Despite the physical absence of associates, the Netsmart facilities teams in Overland Park, KS, Springfield, MO, and Great River, NY, had a large list of to-dos in order to keep the Netsmart wheels turning.
The Netsmart Facilities team played an integral role in keeping Netsmart business operations up and running during the stay-at-home orders of the COVID-19 pandemic. Facilities Senior Manager, Cristan Lasche, shares her team’s story of how they were able to quickly pivot, reassess and meet new demands of a virtual workforce overnight, as well as the execution of a successful and safe return to office strategy for all associates.
When we shifted to a remote workforce last year, we were all suddenly dealing with a whole lot of change. Those of us on the Facilities team were not exempt from this major transition. While our roles required us to remain in the office, it’s no secret our responsibilities and day-to-day operations shifted unexpectedly.
Traditionally, we handle anything building related. Logistics for large meeting rooms, shipping and receiving, catering, event support, office supplies, kitchenette inventory, new hire set up, associate badges, copy machines – if it’s office related, we’ve got our hands in it. But when there aren’t any people in the offices to use these amenities, things look a little different.
A new way of doing things
It was intense there for a little bit; we were all trying to deal with a whole lot of change in a short period of time. A lot of associates left essential items at their desks not knowing how long this stay-at-home mandate was going to last. So, our first major priority was getting people what they needed to work from home. The amount of shipments we were doing every day nearly tripled during that period, trying to get associates what they needed as safely and most efficiently as possible.
Although we didn’t know how long associates were going to be working remotely, we wanted to be fully prepared for the eventual return to office. That process started with the hunt for cleaning and sanitary supplies. Hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, gloves, masks – you name it. We bought everything we could find, because like the rest of the country, we were struggling to obtain these items – let alone get them in bulk for our offices.
In addition to having adequate supplies, we knew additional cleaning services were necessary. Pre-COVID, our cleaning crew came every night for a standard service. But in order to ensure our offices met the new CDC expectations, we added day porters who now come twice a day at every Netsmart office location.
They work extremely hard to give a top to bottom clean twice daily with additional cleaning measures on top of a standard cleaning service– wiping down every common surface possible, from door handles, railings, counter tops, refrigerator doors, sink faucets, etc. Making sure our buildings are cleaned as often as possible was, and still is, a top priority.
We wanted to do everything in our power to make associates feel comfortable and confident about returning to the offices. Whether that be putting hand sanitizers and Clorox wipes at every corner, replacing all plastic utensils with individually packaged tableware, as well as individual coffee creamers instead of touch-pump bottles, or replacing the scoop ice machines with button-touch dispensary, we’re taking every precaution to make our offices a safe and comfortable place to work in this new “normal.”
Return to office
Once it came time for associates to begin returning to the office, we were very strategic about our approach. We worked closely with leaders and our Return to Office committee to determine the most effective and safe way to bring associates back to their desks.
We began phasing groups in last year starting in May. Beginning with phase one, groups of associates were welcome to return to the office based on seating assignments and hallway traffic – in other words, we made sure no one was sitting too close to each other or that there’s wasn’t an influx of people on one floor. During the four phases of groups returning, associates were asked to not mingle among floors and work primarily at their workspaces.
This was definitely an adjustment for Netsmart associates, who are used to working together all over our offices and in various collaboration spaces.
Contact tracing quickly became a part of our new vocabulary. If an associate contracts COVID-19, we work with HR and our security system to see who was in the office at the time based on badge scans, as well as where the individual was sitting based on our floor plan. An exposure notification along with a highlighted seating chart displaying at-risk areas is then sent to associates on the respective floor. Quarantine and work from home protocols have been strictly followed as necessary based on CDC guidelines.
That’s been our compass through all of this; remaining compliant with CDC instruction.
While it can seem scary, especially in the beginning when people were first getting these exposure messages in their inboxes, it’s so important for people to be fully aware. Transparency continues to be a top priority for us – if someone you were sitting by or were in contact with at the office contracted COVID, it’s our duty to let you know right away. We would never put anyone in a situation where they didn’t know potential risks of exposure. While we want everyone in the offices to continue collaboration in person, we have to be realistic and ensure everyone is safe and informed.
Another major element of our return to office strategy was the various and ever-changing signage throughout our offices. As we know, guidelines changed frequently. Masks, no masks, number of people in elevators, conference room occupancies, the list goes on. We’d put a sign up, and two hours later it would change. But we worked closely with our Marketing team to make sure signage around the offices was updated, clear and accurate – no room left for interpretation.
Of course, there were challenges as we phased groups into our offices. Not all of our various offices throughout the country had the same return cadence due to state and local mandates. I think the biggest hurdle was addressing people’s concerns and uncertainty about returning to the offices. Associates had a lot questions about what a return to office plan would look like. Needless to say, this pandemic is unfamiliar territory, and people need to feel supported, safe and informed before coming back into their workspace.
Associates’ safety and comfort is of the utmost importance – global pandemic or not. We’re continuing to learn, pivot and support each other, even in our different office spaces, as we work through the unfamiliar together.
If there was one thing we learned during the past year, it was the importance of remaining flexible, informed and connected.
Why return to office?
It’s clear the COVID-19 pandemic changed the structure of the modern workforce, ultimately resulting in many companies shifting to a full-time remote workforce – at least for the foreseeable future.
While a remote operation may work for a lot of companies and even for some of our associates, there is something to be said about coming to a shared place to collaborate and connect face to face. Netsmart is a synergetic environment where people work better together.
We are now in a position to allow and encourage all of our associates to return to office, if possible, thanks to the support and guidance of leadership, the hard work of our facilities team members and cleaning partners, as well as the patience and compliance from our associates.
I think the more people have come back, the more they realize they do benefit from being in the office. While working from home can have its perks, there’s nothing like the connection and social aspect of seeing your coworkers face to face. For our associates who have always worked virtually, we learned a lot from them on ways to better connect in a virtual world that will carry on even as other associates return to office.
As the pandemic continues to evolve and unfold, we will continue to abide by CDC guidelines, communicate openly with our associates and do everything in our power to make our office spaces safe, clean and comfortable for all. Netsmart is a fun place to work, and a lot of that fun and excitement comes from our associates being here together.
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