A case study in reopening: Bonadio employees cautiously return to work

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The Bonadio Group, a Top 100 Firm based in Rochester, New York, began returning to its offices this week as the stay-at-home order to combat the spread of the coronavirus was lifted in some parts of the state.

However, only employees who are ready and willing to come back started returning on Tuesday, and with new precautions in place. Accounting firms have been deemed essential businesses in New York.

“We opened our offices officially to our Phase 1 employees that agreed and wanted to enter our building yesterday, so on May 26 we reopened,” said Heather Rudes, senior director of HR at Bonadio, in an interview Wednesday. “We’ve been deemed essential, so we did not have to shut down our business. We looked at a plan to kind of rework our business. Luckily we were able to maintain our business in a similar manner while we worked remotely. However, once Governor [Andrew] Cuomo said he was reopening New York State beginning May 15, we decided to ensure that all of our safety measures were put into place, that there was consistency across the firm in all of our offices.”

The firm worked with each team leader throughout the region to identify the approximately 25 percent of employees who wanted to return this week. “We first looked at folks that were really struggling with being able to find a work routine at home,” said Rudes. “We looked at folks who raised their hands and wanted to come back, Then we took those lists, and we looked at our cubicle setup to make sure that each person was at least six feet apart. We implemented a full array of safety measures to make sure that the way we were bringing our folks back is in the safest possible manner.”

So far, only about 30 to 35 employees have been back in each building, and not all of the firm’s offices have reopened, including in hard-hit New York City, where the stay-at-home order is in place until early June. “We purposely have not reopened our New York City office,” said Rudes. “We will wait until we have a lot more guidelines around that part of the state before we will bring our employees back in.” The firm’s Dallas, Texas, office also hasn’t reopened.

But Bonadio has opened most of its offices in New York State, including locations in Albany, Batavia, Buffalo, East Aurora, Rochester, Syracuse and Utica, as well as Rutland, Vermont.

During the pandemic, Bonadio has been helping clients with their taxes and applying for government aid programs like the Paycheck Protection Program, for which the firm set up a special part of its website.

The firm put in place an array of safety measures for the returning employees. “We disinfect all surfaces, including doors and handles, multiple times a day,” said Rudes. “Our safety measures to enter the building include wearing a face mask, putting on plastic gloves upon entry, taking your temperature, and cleaning the handle of that thermometer — it’s a digital touchless infrared thermometer — and then disposing of the Clorox wipe and the gloves and proceeding on to your office.”

Nobody will be allowed back in if they are showing symptoms of COVID-19. “If your temperature is at or above 100.4, we ask you to leave the premises,” said Rudes. “We have listed the symptoms, the CDC symptoms, that have been publicized. If you have any of these symptoms, please leave the building and return home, and call with details. We have limited the number of people that can enter the bathroom. We require masks in all common areas. We provide materials in every single common area to make sure that if you’re using the microwave or if you’re using the printer, [you can] clean surfaces once you are done using the equipment.”

Since the pandemic began spreading across New York State and staff began working remotely, Bonadio has implemented a strong communication plan. “It’s very important to us that we overcommunicate with our employees,” said Rudes. “We want to make sure that they’re engaged in and understand what it is we’re doing on a day-to-day basis to keep our employees safe. We have a health and safety communication plan that talks about wellness, what you can do to stay upbeat in this unique new normal. In the beginning all of our communications that we put out there to all employees focused on behavioral concerns. How do we build trust? How do we encourage creativity and collaboration, connection and psychological safety? Those are the very key thoughts that we communicate and work with our teams. We have daily check-ins. Team managers reach out to their employees every day to see how they’re doing, just to ensure that people are staying in tune and in line with what’s going on here at the business.”

Rudes has been working from her office the whole time, though. “I never left,” she said. “In the beginning I was working probably 24 hours a day. It was a massive undertaking in the beginning just to keep up. I was putting out a communication every single day.”

She also spent time doing a lot of research and talking to similar firms and colleagues in the field about what they were doing. So far, the reaction this week has been extremely positive at the firm. “If they could hug, they would have,” said Rudes. “They were so happy to be back. The folks who are here really want to be here. They’re thrilled to be back at work, to get back to a similar routine that they had in the past. So I would say right now the response is very, very positive. We really didn’t have any issues across the firm with people saying, ‘I’m not wearing a mask, I don’t want to take my temperature, I don’t understand why we have to do this.’ We haven’t had any of that.”

She anticipates the firm will be expanding its wellness initiatives and access to virtual health services, as well as updating and changing its paid time off and sick leave policies to provide employees more flexibility to reduce the number of accrued days left by year’s end. The firm already had many such policies in place ahead of the pandemic.

“I also think employees may consider leave options that may be outsourced given the federally approved paid leave,” Rudes added. “But I will say Bonadio had already invested in those areas prior to COVID-19. We have virtual health services already and unlimited PTO. I think what we will do is focus communication efforts on the need to stay whole. We’ll update our wellness initiatives to include mental health and wellness beyond our [Employee Assistance Plan]. I think we’ll focus more on that as we move into our benefits enrollment time.”

Many of Bonadio’s employees will continue to work remotely as they have since the offices shut down earlier this spring. “From our perspective, this isn’t easy,” said Rues. “There’s no defined plan. We continue to keep health and safety as a priority at our firm, which helped us maintain a successful — albeit different — environment as we work through this new normal.”

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