Back to work? Why traditional post-Labor Day push will be different this year

Kristen Pappas said Onyx Equities is ready for anything.

As a senior vice president of the firm’s property management and construction department, she was one of the leaders of Onyx’s summer rollout for reopening offices, including three of the four buildings in the Gateway complex in Newark.

Kristen Pappas.

It is thorough. There are the office cleanings done under the watchful eye of a certified environmental hygienist and an experience ambassador who literally will push the buttons for you in the elevator if you want a touchless experience.

There’s the potential to have an amusement park fast pass-type system where office workers will be designated times they can enter and leave the building. And, of course, there is signage everywhere — explaining all the rules and regulations for the COVID-19 office.

“We feel like we have thought of every scenario,” Pappas said.

But as New Jersey’s workers return from Labor Day weekend — a moment that traditionally signifies a back-to-work mentality following a period of vacations and Summer Fridays — the question must be asked: Are we ready to go back to work in an office?

Answers very from business to business. While many have been open during the summer, they have had limited workers on site. Often, it is those who don’t have the ability to work from home or those who can’t get adjusted to doing so.

Angelo Genova of Genova Burns in Newark put it this way: 10% of the office is in 50% of the time, he said.

Angelo Genova.

Genova said he hopes to be in the office more after Labor Day.

“I want to set an example,” he said.

Still, there is hesitation — for a variety of reasons.

Big companies may be better equipped to make the necessary adjustments needed to create the workforce environment that meets all safety standards. But companies do not necessarily want to push employees to return before they are comfortable doing so.

Both Prudential Financial and Public Service Enterprise Group — perhaps Newark’s two biggest employers — have kept the great majority of their workforces home this summer, and may continue to do so in the fall.

PSEG Chair Ralph Izzo said those working in the field have continued doing so and that the utility is constantly analyzing the status of those who come to an office.

“Energy is an essential service and a significant percentage of our workforce have continued to work in the field through the pandemic to ensure millions of homes and businesses receive the energy they rely on,” he said. “We also asked thousands of employees, across a variety of functions, who were able to work remotely to do so.

“Our extensive reentry planning began months ago and is well underway, and we’re continuing to evaluate the situation. The health and safety of our employees and customers will remain our top priorities as we reimagine what our work and workplaces will look like in the future.”

This new reality has produced new perceptions about the workplace. Simply put, some companies have found working from home is just as efficient, if not more.

Tara Dowdell, the founder and president of the Tara Dowdell Group, a full-service marketing and communications firm in Jersey City, said her six-person team has spent little time in the office since March, but has been as productive as it ever has been.

Tara Dowdell.

Dowdell doesn’t see her firm returning to the office anytime soon. Why risk it, she said.

“We’re so small and we’re so busy that we literally can’t afford to have someone get sick,” she said. “That’s one of the main issues. I can’t absorb losing someone … for a couple of weeks.”

Then there’s this: “Quite frankly, I think we’ve all gotten used to working remotely.”

This changing mindset will be tested in the coming months. Starting this week. Don’t underestimate the impact of Labor Day weekend on the psychological well-being of the workforce, one expert said.

Frank Ghinassi, the CEO of Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care and RWJBarnabas Health’s senior vice president of behavioral health and addictions service line, said the end of the summer season will have an impact.

“The summer offered a brief, perhaps illusory psychological exhale,” he said. “Outdoor dining, socially distanced trips to the Shore and the familiar sounds of kids away from school allowed for the closest experience of the pre-COVID life for which we’ve all been yearning.

Frank Ghinassi.

“Now, with fall comes shorter days, cooler weather, a decidedly abnormal ‘return’ to school, continued working from home for many, and the reality that the socially distanced, masked and hand-washing new reality will be with us through the winter and into spring is slowly being fully acknowledged.”

The fall will be tough. And, while many are still hesitant to return to the workforce, others said they have embraced the few opportunities that have been a blast from the past.

Michael Givner, the longtime president of IMG Advisors in Morristown and the current president of the Association for Corporate Growth-New Jersey, got a taste of the old world a few days before Labor Day weekend. He had a client who requested a face-to-face meeting.

“I have to say, it was very invigorating to be back out,” he said.

Givner recognizes the reality of the situation.

Michael Givner.

“It’s been frustrating,” he said. “This is getting old.”

Givner thinks more people will see a new reality this week.

“People have been in a little bit of la-la land in August, which is typically a time for vacation,” he said. “This will have an impact.”

John Kennedy, the head of the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program, offered his two cents: Don’t be afraid to come back.

His organization has been back for months, without issue. But, he said, it stems from following the rules.

“We don’t meet in offices,” he said. “If we need to meet — and we keep them small — we go to the large training center.

“A lot of it is common sense, but you have to follow that common sense every day.”

For those who want to return, Pappas said Onyx is ready. It may have been the first landlord to release a comprehensive guide to reopening earlier this summer.

Pappas said new procedures and products are important — Onyx has a cleaning tool for elevators that uses UV light — but communication may top of the list of wants.

“I think the whole thing is sort of intuitive,” she said. “It was a matter of saying, ‘What would make me feel safe?’ and then figuring out how we get there.

“All offices are different. You have to be ready for any on scenario. I think we are.”