In June, Salesforce released “How to Safely Reopen Your Business,” a step-by-step guide to bring your organization back to the workplace in the wake of COVID-19. To speak to the report, YPO caught up with members James Lipscombe, CEO of the Chesterford Group, which operates a chain of multi-branded takeaway restaurants and virtual kitchen brands in the U.K.; and Antony Karabus, CEO of HRC Retail Advisory, a boutique retail consulting firm based in Chicago and Toronto.

Step One: When to reopen, how to do it, and who decides

The thread that runs throughout Salesforce’s report is planning. The question of reopening varies by sector and organization. Only you and your team can decide the parameters for when the time is right — but taking time for that plan is vital.

“The single most important thing for a CEO is to be willing to not force everybody to go back to what things were before but instead to find the right blend of what the business needs and how employees can feel safe and supported as they manage both their family dynamics and their role at the company,” Karabus says.

Salesforce suggests codifying that team into a leadership task force. What voices will be key to reopening? Consider those among leadership and departments beyond. The report also offers a template to formulate a task force vision.

“Our head of operations is also our NEBOSH (National Examination Board in Occupational Safety and Health) qualified health and safety coordinator,” says Lipscombe. “We brought [him] onto the team to help us understand what was required to get the shops open safely, and also understand how we could operate the stores through the different sales channels.”

With your task force, define what safety at work means to you. Any business, regardless of size or sector, can benefit from defining key safety metrics tailored to what it does, local laws and community conditions. Salesforce points to the Centers for Disease Control’s hierarchy of controls as a guide, and lists internal and external factors that should play a role:

  • Government guidance
  • Declining COVID-19 cases
  • Capacity of your community’s health care system
  • Employee and leadership perspectives
  • Facilities capacity

The report highlights Salesforce’s Workplace Command Center as a tool for evaluating factors and strongly recommends regular communication with employees in tandem to maximize transparency — a template is provided for daily emails. Updates and discussion via internal and external social networks will also serve you well, plus recorded messages for those who can’t attend. Lipscombe uses his mobile phone to record simple, honest video messages.

“You don’t need a production studio,” he says. “I send them all out on WhatsApp. Teams know instantly what is going on and feel they are part of the journey. And we have an internal Facebook group, and I’m constantly posting pictures of what we’re doing.”

Step Two: Planning is everything

Reopening in the wake of a pandemic is unprecedented. Treat it accordingly. With your task force, draft a return-to-work plan. Salesforce highlights three key questions this plan should answer, with a template:

  • Who should return to work and when?
  • What changes do you need to make to your facilities, whether it’s offices, storefronts or warehouses?
  • How do you support employees in keeping them safe?

The report details how to work through these, including a sample, phased return-to-work plan. These will be unique to your workplace, geographic location and what your business needs to function. For each phase, outline which employees to include and the employee density on site. If you’ll be working in shifts, describe those shifts at each phase. Karabus stresses this aspect can’t be oversimplified.

“Think department by department and ask what they need. It can’t be as simple as saying, ‘These guys come in Monday to Tuesday, and these guys Wednesday to Friday. It has to be more scientific and a blend of what the particular department needs and how the applicable staff can keep their family taken care of, while they are effective at their corporate role,” he says.

The single most important thing for a CEO is to be willing to not force everybody to go back to what things were before. ”
— Antony Karabus, CEO HRC Retail Advisory share twitter

Estimate duration for the first few phases but leave this open-ended for later phases based on how things go. As you work through each phase, you’ll update the plan based on lessons learned. One major advantage of phased reopening is that is allows you to be nimble if (or when) the time comes to roll back to a previous phase.

“I’ve got the infrastructure, and our teams are trained,” says Lipscombe about being ready for a second wave. “It’s far easier to do a second time than it was the first time. I know I can move straight back to only serving our customers through click and collect, and delivery.”

Next, you’ll want to prepare your employees. How will you make them feel safe? Remember, safety measures for employees are also safety measures for customers. The report discusses numerous practices, including:

  • Flexible work policies and work shifts
  • Daily wellness check-ins
  • Face coverings, gloves and other personal protective equipment
  • Temperature checks, where legally allowed

“The single biggest thing for a retailer to give their customers confidence to come in is to reassure them that they’ve got the right protocols in place to keep them safe in the store,” Karabus says of retail.

Relative to that, Salesforce offers targeted advice on how to rethink your workplace, and that thinking can be extrapolated to facilities of all kinds. The report addresses:

  • Workstations and shared spaces, including elevators
  • Signage
  • Hand washing and sanitizer stations
  • Food and beverage provided at work
  • Enhanced cleaning and inspection, specifically HVAC and air circulation

For Lipscombe, and for many restaurants, this has also meant riding the wave of a changing sales mix, from largely in-person, to delivery only, to a mix of delivery and curbside/click and collect.

“We needed to upscale that enormously,” Lipscombe says. “We needed to retrain teams. We needed to invest in new hardware. We needed to invest in software.”

But some upgrades were simpler, he says, like retrofitting existing windows for contactless pickup — a simple upgrade that makes employees and customers feel safer.

To wrap up the planning phase, Salesforce returns to communication, and how to share your reopening plan with your entire team. If you’ve maintained employee engagement thus far, you’ll be ready.

Step Three: Navigating change

Salesforce’s advice for keeping your employees safe beyond the first day back: assess and reassess. The report specifies steps for responding to COVID-19 outside and inside your workplace. For example, if someone in your office comes down with the virus:

  • Shut down the impacted area
  • Initiate contact tracing and reach out to close contacts
  • Require medical clearance for team members who’ve been exposed before they return to work

These steps will vary based on your organization’s values and local laws — and local laws can and will change based on what’s happening in the community. It’s wise to be ready to respond, even if employees are well.

Get out there and see what’s going on and talk to your teams. Don’t stay in your offices.   ”
— James Lipscombe, CEO of the Chesterford Group share twitter

It’s also essential to reassess the specific facilities changes you’ve made in preparation for reopening. Are they working? Are you keeping pace? Karabus warns of the outsized impact when employees go public about lackluster attention to practical safety measures, like handwashing supplies or social distancing or as to whether products they pick up in the store have been touched by other customers or have been properly sanitized.

“It’s not ‘we’re doing deep cleaning when someone is diagnosed,’” he says. “Ask them what’s bothering them. Ask them what’s making them feel less safe.”

Final Thoughts: Keeping your finger on the pulse

Salesforce summarizes its report by advising leaders to stay agile; move quickly to address challenges; and plan to do it all again the next day. Karabus’s advice? Take this moment of less travel and fewer meetings to reflect and get it right.

“Take sufficient time to do the strategic thinking. That’s really going to make a huge difference in the success of the business,” he says. “Talk to all of your key customers all the time and to your key employees. Microsoft Teams or similar tools can work wonders to make customers and employees feel important and connected. Nothing is worse for a business and a B2B relationship than being absent and not being in tune with their crucial needs and how you can help them overcome those needs.”

Lipscombe agrees and adds that the best way to keep a finger on the pulse of your business is to head into the trenches.

“I still go out and cook fish and chips in our shops every Friday night,” he says. “Get out there and see what’s going on and talk to your teams. Don’t stay in your offices.”

Access the Salesforce workplace resources. Salesforce is a YPO global strategic partner

For more crisis leadership stories like these check out the COVID-19: Leading Through Crisis page on All YPO members can find breaking news, offer insights and view current discussions happening about COVID-19 impact within the YPO community on the YPO member-only platform.  

Explore more insights from global leaders on the challenges of getting back to business in a post-pandemic world.

By Mary Sigmond | View full bio