Watch our panel of small business owners and experts discuss how to operate a socially distant business.

In our pandemic-altered collective conscience, feeling safe has become the ultimate luxury — a notion businesses must embrace to earn the trust of both customers and employees today.

That shift calls for a safety-led social distancing strategy informed by health guidelines and best practices — from staggered schedules for office workers to parking-lot-transformed dining rooms for restaurants, panelists told Jeanette Mulvey, content director for CO—, during the seventh episode of CO— Blueprint, a virtual event series dedicated to providing small businesses with the ideas and strategies they need to reopen successfully.

Here are five key takeaways from the discussion.

Plan a safety-first return-to-office strategy

It might sound obvious, but businesses plotting their return to the office must plan with a “safety-first objective” in mind, said Ken Biberaj, managing director of commercial real estate advisory Savills.

Meeting social distancing requirements in an office environment calls for businesses to first make a logistical assessment of their industry-specific needs, considering key factors such as: building safety measures like air quality, cleaning protocols and traffic flow; the number of employees returning to the office; what PPE is required; and how the workspace — and workflow — must be reconfigured to ensure social distancing and worker safety, panelists said.

For businesses, creating a vetted, data-driven return-to-office plan in a global health crisis means bringing “new people to the table,” Biberaj said. In addition to a company’s chief financial officer and human resources team, the strategy should be a collaborative process with input from a business’s legal team to its IT staff to the employees themselves, he said.

“You want to make sure workers feel safe,” so solicit their feedback, absorb their concerns and “be transparent with them on the steps you’re taking,” Biberaj said.

Implement best practices in social distancing

The pandemic has accelerated the trend toward remote work. So businesses planning an office return would be wise to integrate flexible work-from-home policies, which is good for employee morale, but can also serve as a safety measure that reduces density in a given space, panelists said.

For example, when sheltering in place orders took hold in March, Delta Administrative Services kept its office opened, but pivoted to rotating schedules to keep the number of workers on site to a minimum, just as some employees worked from home full time.

“We designed an ‘A’ group and a ‘B’ group: a group that came in Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and a group that came in Tuesdays and Thursdays — and the following week, we rotated the groups,” said Teresa Lawrence, president and CEO of the human resources firm. “That’s worked very nicely.”

Other social distancing office solutions include implementing formal desk-cleaning protocols; adding socially distanced space markers; and designating one-way aisles, entrances and exits with directional arrows, experts said.

It might sound obvious, but businesses plotting their return to the office must plan with a “safety-first objective” in mind.

Ken Biberaj, managing director, Savills

Tap effective — and affordable —safety measures

For Drago's Seafood Restaurant, consumer research revealed that guests value socially distanced tables and mask-donning waitstaff over the special of the day and if shrimp gumbo is on the menu (it is).

When it comes to restaurant dining, safety, it turns out, “is number one in the consumer’s mind,” more than the menu or the service, said Tommy Cvitanovich, owner of the Louisiana-based restaurant.

To that end, Cvitanovich, who also serves as a restaurant industry consultant, has revamped the business to ease guests’ health concerns. Adhering to state capacity restrictions and with its dining room closed, Drago’s transformed its parking lot into an outdoor eating patio; added contactless mobile payment terminals; erected plexiglass barriers between socially distanced tables; and expanded its takeout business so dramatically that to-go orders now account for 60% to 70% of its sales today, he said. Those pandemic pivots have buoyed the restaurant’s top line, so that “comp [store] sales are coming along with last year,” he said.

Make it official: Create a COVID-19 policy handbook

To establish and enforce pandemic-informed safety measures, businesses would be wise to create a COVID-19 handbook with a human resources manager to institute concrete policies and procedures, from mask and social distancing mandates to travel and quarantine guidelines, Lawrence said.

With the help of Delta Administrative Services, High Level Speech and Hearing Center did just that. The Louisiana-based speech and hearing clinic implemented pandemic policies including temperature checks; hand-washing guidelines; mask-and-glove-wearing requirements; disinfecting protocols and more, to make sure its child and adult patient base feels safe — which is critical to their care, said Dr. Lana Joseph-Ford, founder and CEO of High Level Speech and Hearing Center. “If [patients] are not feeling comfortable and if they’re not feeling safe, their anxiety level becomes high,” she said.

The clinic has also benefited from integrating telemedicine into its practice. Indeed, “virtual appointments have become an additional source of revenue and have increased our access to [a wider] customer base,” Dr. Joseph-Ford said.

Broadcast your safety message via show and tell

When it comes to convincing employees and customers that your business is optimized for safety, “overcommunication” is key, said Savills’ Biberaj.

And as humans process visual cues faster than verbal cues, show them how you’re keeping them safe, in addition to telling them, said Lawrence.

Drago’s diners, for one, witness the restaurant’s safety-first ethos in 30-minute intervals. Every half hour, the staff comes to a timer-imposed full stop to wash their hands and “wash down all customer touchpoints” — from tables to door handles, Cvitanovich said. Even if a waiter is busy serving a customer, they’ll stop to say, “‘I’ll be right back to finish your order,’” which instills confidence in guests, he said.

Cvitanovich also spreads Drago’s safety-first message with restaurant signage, on social media platforms and during radio and TV appearances.

Meanwhile, Dr. Joseph-Ford burnishes the speech and hearing clinic’s health ethos while boosting its exposure via her new video series, Healthy Habits with Dr. J., on New Orleans’ WWL-TV. This way patients, many of whom have shifted to virtual appointments and are missing out on face-to-face visits “are able to tune in, see me, and hear about our company, [and see that] we can still be at the forefront of evolving medicine in Louisiana,” she said.

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