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Navigating Out-of-Office Gatherings in the Age of Covid-19

July 22, 2021, 8:00 AM

As businesses across the country bring employees back to the office, employers are developing and implementing return-to-work policies to keep employees as safe as possible. From Covid-19 screenings to temperature checks to requiring proof of vaccination before returning, many employers are taking the utmost precautions in the workplace.

But what happens when a manager wants to resume out-of-office workplace events such as celebrating a birthday with lunch at a restaurant or hosting a work-sponsored happy hour?

Below are a few tips to help employers navigate out-of-office gatherings as employees adjust to a “new normal.” As always, many states, cities, and counties have their own Covid-19 rules and restrictions, and employers should consult those before adopting any new policies.

Keep Activities Safe

Vaccinated Employees: On June 17, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines for individuals who have been fully vaccinated, stating that fully vaccinated individuals can “resume activities that [they] did prior to the pandemic.” This includes activities “without wearing a mask or physically distancing” except where required by law. If all your employees are vaccinated, the CDC would deem most typical out-of-office activities safe.

Unvaccinated Employees: On June 29, the CDC issued new guidelines for individuals who have not been vaccinated, stating that “outdoors is the safer choice” if individuals want to spend time with people with whom they don’t live. Examples of “safer” outdoor activities include eating outside at a restaurant where the tables are at least 6 feet apart, while a “less safe” activity would include eating inside at a restaurant.

Always choose safer activities for out-of-office events in well-ventilated areas that allow unvaccinated employees to stay outside and practice social distancing. Additionally, be sure non-vaccinated employees wear masks when required.

Make Out-Of-Office Events Voluntary

Out-of-office events are a great way to reward employees and build camaraderie. But managers achieve none of these goals if employees are afraid to participate, or worse yet, are exposed to Covid-19 while participating.

This is why the number one rule to keep in mind is to make participation in out-of-office events voluntary. Employees of all types, especially those at a high risk of severe illness, may experience anxiety related to leaving the familiar confines of an office—where the employer presumably has set up proper Covid-19- related protocols—for a public place, such as a restaurant or bar. To combat this, employers should formulate a plan to convey to its employees the voluntary nature of participation in out-of-office activities.

Make Accommodations

Employers should already be familiar with the concept of making reasonable accommodations for employees who need and request them. Although federal law may not mandate that an employer move a work happy-hour event from an indoor to an outdoor venue, accommodating requests from employees is good business sense and helps avoid conflict.

It is also important to remember that not all employees are comfortable speaking up in a group or may not want to broadcast their apprehension related to Covid-19. Managers should individually and privately check in with each employee to ensure they are comfortable with out-of-office plans and be open to changing those plans based on employee feedback.

These check-ins should not be done in common areas or around other employees and not via group or all-office e-mails. Be sure to train your managers on how to best handle these potentially delicate conversations.

Do Not Exclude Employees

When an employer starts treating employees differently, trouble may follow. Employers should avoid singling out vaccinated, unvaccinated, or apprehensive groups of employees when planning an out-of-office activity.

Instead, the employer should choose an activity where all employees can safely participate, regardless of health concerns or vaccination status. In the event that an individual employee chooses not to participate in an out-of-office activity, do not pressure that employee and do not discuss with others in the group the reason for the employee’s lack of participation. Employees should be able to share, or not share, that information as they choose.

Be Flexible

Everyone, from a manager down to her employees, is in uncharted territory trying to regain some sense of normalcy. That’s why it is important to remain flexible when it comes to out-of-office events.

If a restaurant does not offer an outdoor seating area, pick a restaurant that does. If an employee feels more comfortable eating lunch with coworkers in the break room instead of a public restaurant, order in.

Rigid plans are likely to cause rifts between employees who are comfortable with some risk and those who are not. Avoid this potential conflict by remaining flexible when it comes to the time, day, location, and activity you plan.

Limiting Exposure May Be Safer

If the goal of the out-of-office activity is to help employees reconnect, consider limiting the individuals at your next gathering to only your employees. For example, instead of an indoor bar full of people who have not passed your company’s Covid-19 protocols, it may be possible to use space at your workplace—whether in the form of a break room, conference room, or private outdoor area. Consider using these spaces and ordering in.

If you do choose to leave the office, many restaurants also have outdoor seating areas that can be rented out to ensure minimum exposure to individuals from outside your office “bubble.” No matter what you choose, employers must ensure that employee social events are in line with the employer’s Covid-19 protocols.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Jason D. Friedman is an associate at Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete LLP’s Washington, D.C., metro office.

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