Is It Safe To Go Back To My Office?

10 Tips to help you decide if you are comfortable going back into your office space.

It’s the question that weighs on everyone’s mind: “When will it be safe to go back into the office?” The truth is, there probably will not be an empirical all clear. We need to reframe the question as: “When will I be comfortable to go back into the office?” This reframe gives us a lot more latitude in our decision making.

Our level of comfort with returning to our offices is obviously directly related to our level of safety. As with all things safety related, information is liberation. Here are some tips on gathering information so you can make a decision if you are comfortable going back to your office.

NY State requires that all commercial buildings must have and post a Covid Safety Plan. Here is the link to the NYS Business Reopening Safety Plan Template. Check with you building to see that they have their safety plan posted and are instituting the requirements. This includes markers identifying 6ft separation, mask requirements for entry, and a cleaning regiment. Additionally, many buildings have established hand sanitizer stations at primary “Touch Points” such as the doors and elevators. Inquire if this is the case with your building.

Many of us have an office in a suite. The building rules do not necessarily apply within the suite. Check with your landlord to see how they plan to maintain a clean and hygenic environment. Most suites have created a protocol for daily cleaning, changing air filters, and installing hand sanitizing locations. Communicate with the landlord / suitemates to see what is in place. Additionally, the APA has posted Guidelines for Reopening your Office.

Through our research, we have found that a person’s commute into their office is the biggest obstacle to them returning. Unsurprisingly, many people that are able to walk to their office, have begun using their offices again. For those of us where our office is not walk-able, some strategizing is in order. Can I commute without mass transit, ie a bike, or an Uber? Can I utilize mass transit at less than peak times? Another alternative is to consider finding an office closer to where you live, our closer to primary commuting points.

We should all recognize that we are traumatized by Covid. It is dangerous out there, and we know that we are safest in our homes. But we should ask ourselves if our quarantine has created mild cases of agoraphobia? As with all changes, we should consider going back to our offices in incremental steps. A therapist I spoke with started back a few months ago, simply to water her plants and gather her mail. She started by going for an hour every 2 weeks, then increased her time to a few hours every 2 weeks, to once a week, to a full day once a week. Just as with any phobia, exposure was the key to breaking her cycle of fearing the return to the office. While she is not yet seeing patients, she is enjoying her office and plans on going into the office more days per week in the upcoming weeks. Ultimately, only you are able to decide when you are ready to return to the office. Understand your health risks to guage how comfortable you are going reentering the office.

Now that you have ventured back to your office, you hopefully are starting to feel a bit more comfortable with the idea of returning. Consider doing a few telehealth sessions from your office. You will feel comfortable back in a familiar professional setting, and your patients will appreciate the normalcy of seeing you back in your office.

In anticipation that we will need to go back to our offices at some point and see patients in person, it is best to get ourselves in order. The APA has posted an Informed Consent Form for patients. All therapists should review the form and have their patients sign it ptior to them coming into the office.

A fellow practitioner recently found himself in a conundrum…. he had a patient that was back and work, and didn’t have a safe place from which to conduct a telehealth session. While the therapist was using his office, he wasn’t comfortable seeing a patient in person yet. His solution was to contact another person in the suite and have the patient use the second office. While seemingly awkward, the therapist reported that both he and the patient found the arrangement to be convenient and rewarding. The patient had a familiar safe place to go, and the therapist could conduct a telehealth session safely. Consider entering a similar arrangement with fellow therapists in the suite, or contact your landlord to see if they are open to an arrangement to utilize an empty office at an hourly fee.

Inevitably, your patients will be back at work, and will begin requesting in person sessions. If you haven’t been checking in with them already about telehealth and their comfort with in-person sessions, now is the time to do it. Assuming that you are comfortable with in person sessions, the next question for yourself is the real kicker…. mask or no mask. You need to understand the answer for yourself before you can go there with your patient. Recognize that as telehealth created a barrier, so to does the mask, and possibly in more challenging ways. Facial expressions are obscured, sound is muffled, etc. Its a whole new set of challenges to work through and to consider.

Most therapy offices have been set up the same way for ages: couch at the far end of the office, therapist chair towards the door. The patient walks in, passes your chair, sits on their couch. While normally questions this layout would be unheard of, these are not normal times. To better combat Covid in the office, it may make sense to swap the patient couch and therapist chair. Placing the therapist chair at the far end of the room will limit the patient movement in the room and prevent them from passing you. This may present some concerns in regards to therapist / patient security, so each patient should be considered individually.

We hope that a universal “All Clear” bell will sound. Unfortunately that probably isn’t the case. Only you will be able to decide when you are comfortable to see patients in person again, and what that will look like when you do. You will need to do the risk assessment, and decide when it is the right tie to reenter the office. Luckily, there are many alternatives to seeing your patients in person, whether your patients use your office while you still work from home, or you utilize a second office for their sessions. Possibly the only professional bright spot of the quarantine is that we have all proven that telehealth can be effective.