Although Covid-19 cases are rising in some states, workplaces are still reopening, and office managers have a new line item on their employee-wellness checklists. Employers that once shelled out for pizza are now budgeting for personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies--not only to prevent coronavirus transmission but also to help workers feel cared-for and more confident about returning to offices

Coffee Mugs Are Out, "CleanKeys" Are In 

Giveaways emblazoned with company logos have long been a popular way for businesses to sow goodwill at trade shows and corporate events. But by mid-March, with offices closing and conferences canceled, companies in the promotional-swag industry found their world turned upside down. The choice was clear: Adapt or fail.

"It was pretty bleak," says Leo Friedman, founder and CEO of iPromo, a Chicago-based firm that ordinarily sells custom-branded swag like mugs and tote bags. IPromo saw incoming requests drop by more than 90 percent in just a few days. "It became about survival," Friedman says.

IPromo survived and then some. It now sells individual "back-to-work kits" that include masks, gloves, wipes, and hand sanitizer in a branded pouch. It's quickly adding new items, like non-contact thermometers and "CleanKeys," small metal tools that hang on a keychain and can be used to press elevator buttons and turn door handles. The 20-year-old company had longstanding relationships with trusted Chinese suppliers, which gave it an edge over others that were trying to pivot to masks and sanitizer--and over price-gougers and fraudsters who flooded the market with shoddy products. IPromo's new offerings were a hit with its old customers. "A bunch of seven-digit orders came in," Friedman says. "I think in the history of our company, we had only had a couple of those, ever--and we got a bunch in a row." 

Health-and-safety products now make up more than 70 percent of sales, according to Friedman. And they're now being used as networking swag. When trade show customers wanted to distribute gifts--like PPE kits--directly to their own clients, iPromo had to build out new technology so that it could send shipments to thousands of addresses. 

Brands that stock office pantries have also taken a beating. The business-to-business food service industry has been "decimated" by shutdowns, according to Sean Kelly, co-founder and CEO of SnackNation, a six-year-old Culver City, California-based company that delivers boxes of granola bars, jerky, coffee, and other treats to startups. When many of its customers paused their deliveries, SnackNation took an existing idea out of the "parking lot" and kicked it into gear--the company now offers "work-from-home boxes" that can be delivered directly to remote staffers. After customers said they were worried about shortages of high-quality safety products, the company also introduced a line of boxes with "essentials"--masks, wipes, hand sanitizer, Vitamin C supplements, and thermometers. These can be shipped to WFH employees or to the office, to wait on desks for when staffs return, alongside snacks (individually packaged, of course).

"We joke around that our brand and procurement team [has] gone through 100 layers of skin, because we've been testing hand sanitizers," Kelly says. There was an "explosion of interest" for the new boxes, and SnackNation is on track to beat its 2019 revenue, according to the company.

Planning Ahead

Workers' sense of security has been shaken, and if you're asking them to leave home and travel to work--and maybe take public transit on the way--they'll want to feel safe when they arrive. That challenge requires careful planning, especially in co-working spaces and open-office workplaces.

Justice HQ, a membership organization that provides office space and administrative support for consumer advocate attorneys, learned this very quickly. It opened the doors to its first location, in downtown Los Angeles, in early March; the city's shelter-in-place order came down two weeks later. As a legal service, Justice HQ  is an essential business. With almost all its staff working from home, though, the firm rejiggered its room-booking system, established social-distancing requirements, and revised cleaning routines to make the space safer for members. The company had already signed up for food deliveries from SnackNation, and immediately added the "essentials" to its order when they became available. "Our top priority right now is, of course, safety and confidence," says RJ Gossett, Justice HQ's director of community operations. 

Employers should build their safety protocols around what makes employees most comfortable, says Jonathan Wasserstrum, co-founder and CEO of SquareFoot, a commercial real estate brokerage in New York City. Depending on your industry and location, you might not be legally required to provide masks or other safety supplies, but doing so signals that you're being proactive and taking every precaution. For instance, if having a box of gloves available makes some employees feel safer, Wasserstrum believes his company should provide it. 

SquareFoot went all-remote in March and has been hashing out a comprehensive return-to-work plan; the company expects to bring about a third of its employees back to the office when New York's "Phase 2" reopening begins later in the summer. The company, which has an open-plan office in a Manhattan high-rise, is reexamining every aspect of the workday, from reducing conference-room occupancy to issuing individual bathroom keys, says Wasserstrum. "Literally every step of your day has to be thought through with an eye toward safety," he says.