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I’m a physician and a CEO. Why I won’t bring my employees back to the office before Labor Day 2021

As the U.S. moves into a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are now finally coming to grips with the fact that work-from-home isn’t going away anytime soon. For many companies, especially those in services and technology, remote work has not been the disaster they might have expected, as their workforces have proven surprisingly productive.

For individuals however, the toll has been steep. Workers are reporting longer hours, more stress, and an inability to disconnect. Parents have been especially hard hit by the double duty of work and childcare, a trend that looks likely to continue as many schools remain closed through the fall.

As the realization settles in that the pandemic will stretch into multiple quarters rather than multiple months, CEOs must again grapple with how to advise their employees on returning to the office. In March, many initially set an arbitrary reopening date of Labor Day 2020. Yet as the holiday quickly approaches and case numbers continue to rise, many are split on whether to move ahead or walk back their plans to reopen their offices.

In my opinion, they got the day right but the year wrong. At Zocdoc, we will open our offices as soon as it is safe to do so, but we will not require anyone to return until at least Labor Day 2021.

Given the incredible stress that their employees and communities face, it is vital that leaders clearly communicate the frameworks they will use to safely reopen offices. As a physician and CEO, I considered both the health risks and the business risks in developing Zocdoc’s reopening framework, and ultimately leaned on the physician’s pledge of primum non nocere: First, do no harm.

Here is the framework I am using, rooted in that philosophy, which I have shared with my team and fellow CEOs.

Do no harm to your business 

All businesses should ask themselves, “Can we keep working from home effectively?” Any company whose answer is “yes” should continue to do so.

Many workers, including those in healthcare, manufacturing, and agriculture, don’t enjoy the ability to work from home. Those who do must take responsibility to protect them and their families.

Wherever possible, work from home should still be the default while we try to contain the virus. Minor productivity losses are not worth risking employees’ and communities’ health.

Do no harm to your employees’ health 

Safeguarding our employees’ health is paramount. Companies should not require their teams to return until an effective vaccine or treatment is broadly available. My best guess is that we’ll have an effective vaccine available early in 2021. However, we will likely not have the logistics in place to produce and distribute sufficient amounts until the middle of next year. Ramping up production and ensuring people go out and get vaccinated will take some time. Hundreds of millions of people will likely require two doses each. To put that in perspective, patients in the U.S. make about 1.2 billion visits to the doctor each year across all specialties; these vaccinations alone will increase that number by nearly 50{ce8ce7cc98bffdc4302011057a79600ea02c464c5536f1477c12acdb8bd79c00}, and vaccines will predominantly be administered by primary care specialists. That is a tremendous capacity constraint. 

While we await the wide distribution of a vaccine, CEOs should only reopen if an effective treatment becomes broadly available. To call my employees back to the office, a treatment would need to reduce the mortality rate to close to zero, a rate comparable to influenza

Do no harm to your employees’ personal lives

Next, CEOs should consider employees’ emotional and personal wellbeing. We are aware that many “Zocdoc’rs,” particularly parents, have to make some tough decisions around the upcoming school year. We want to give everyone the ability to plan and make living arrangements, like signing a year-long lease in a particular school district or to be closer to childcare support, without worrying about the potential need to uproot their families on short notice.

Do no harm to your community

On top of keeping employees safe, CEOs must also work to keep our communities safe. Essential workers and others who are required to perform their jobs in person are taking on tremendous risk. The rest of us who are able to work remotely should not act as a vector for community spread. It is a meaningful public health contribution and social responsibility to reserve the “risk budget” for the companies and essential workers that need to spend it because their work can only be done in person.

Without a vaccine or effective treatment, companies should not rush to reopen their offices if remote work is a viable option. CEOs must prioritize the health and wellbeing of employees when planning a tentative reopening date, and even aim to set a longer-term date so that their teams can plan out their lives and remain productive in the interim. Leaders should model good stewardship of their communities and contribute to public health efforts to mitigate community spread. 

Finally, above all else, when planning your reopening framework, remember: first, do no harm.

Oliver Kharraz, MD is the CEO and founder of Zocdoc, a medical-care appointment booking service.

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