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Texas Tried Re-Opening Offices Early. It Was Hard Even Before the Coronavirus Surge.

06/28/2020 | 02:12pm

By Collin Eaton and Chip Cutter

Texas got back to work faster than most states. It now serves as a warning to the nation: reopening offices and other businesses may be messier and more prone to disruption than many imagined.

The state faces a rapid increase of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. In Harris County, home to Houston and the world's biggest energy companies, confirmed cases more than doubled since the end of last month. The data has some big employers, including LyondellBasell Industries NV and Shell Oil Co., sending workers back home again to do their jobs remotely.

Yet even before the recent increases, there had been clear signs all month that the patchwork reopening had problems.

Some companies brought back office workers in May or early June only to face coronavirus outbreaks within days or weeks. Others still can't figure out how to send people up a 50-story skyscraper. Chevron says limiting riders on some elevators would create dangerous crowding in lobbies, so the company is telling its masked workers to refrain from speaking on the ride up.

Refilling Chevron Corp.'s two high-rise office towers in downtown Houston is a daunting task. Of 7,000 workers, roughly 350 are back, says Dave Payne, the company's vice president of health, environment and safety. The company has parking spaces for less than a third of its employees. Previously, thousands had counted on van pools and public buses, which are currently deemed too risky. When arriving, employees must undergo a thermal imaging scan before entering the building.

Mr. Payne acknowledged the situation could drag on into 2021. "We're trying to be as flexible as possible," he said.

Many workers -- even unlikely ones -- are finding they can perform their jobs from home.

As America shut down in March, Aniket Sanyal packed up four computer monitors from his office in Houston. Since then, he has helped drill a dozen oil wells in the North Sea, the Middle East and beyond -- all while working in his home office. It is a feat the 30-year-old petroleum engineer for Halliburton Co. says he and his bosses didn't see coming at the start of 2020, nor did he consider it possible years ago when he was working on drilling rigs.

"I just needed a good internet connection," says Mr. Sanyal, adding that his home-brewed espresso roast has kept him going on 12-hour shifts operating automated technologies, monitoring data and supervising on-site drillers.

He expects to work from home part time even once Halliburton fully reopens its offices. So far, roughly 700 of 3,000 Halliburton corporate employees are back in the Houston headquarters. All plans for bringing in more people are on hold until at least mid-July amid the recent surge.

Halliburton said some employees based at one of its Houston campuses have tested positive for Covid-19.

Even as the state's government rapidly reopened offices, bars, restaurants, salons and gyms, many companies chose not to rush their workers back into skyscrapers and sprawling suburban office campuses. They are reluctant to do so when many workers remain anxious about catching the virus and are productive enough at home.

Coronavirus-related hospitalizations, which have been on the rise for days, hit a record on Saturday of 5,523 people currently hospitalized statewide.

Group 1 Automotive Inc., one of the nation's largest publicly traded car dealership chains, kept its Houston headquarters open for a small number of employees until mid-June, when an employee contracted the virus, said Frank Grese, senior vice president of human resources.

Most of Group 1's corporate employees have private offices, making it easier to distance, and with hand sanitizer stations spread around its floors, "the place looked like a pharmacy," says Peter DeLongchamps, a senior vice president at the company. Outside the office is the tougher environment, he said, because many people in Texas grew complacent in their personal time, eschewing masks and ignoring social distancing guidelines, which raises the risks for co-workers during 9-to-5 life.

"Everyone got restless, and I think we've let our guard down," Mr. DeLongchamps says. "That's the one thing I would tell you about Texas's reopening: There's a little bit too lax of an attitude."

After the positive Covid test, Group 1 shut its headquarters for two weeks as a precaution. It reopens Monday on a restricted basis, with employees only coming in when absolutely necessary and returning to remote work as quickly as possible, Mr. Grese says. Wearing a mask will be required and the building won't have more than 15% of the employees who usually work there.

Back-to-work plans vary widely, even in the same industry and the same city, colored by executives' views of the virus, their methods of tracking whether it is safe to return and their political leanings.

British oil company BP PLC, with 4,000 workers in Houston, hasn't yet begun its first phase of returning workers to its regional headquarters, and doesn't see any reason it can't keep workers at home until sometime next year, says Starlee Sykes, BP's Houston-based regional president of Gulf of Mexico and Canada. In 2017, when Hurricane Harvey flooded BP's offices, many workers had to do their jobs from home for six to nine months as the company rebuilt.

"We've had a dry run for this," Ms. Sykes said of working from home. "The technology did work then but it works a lot better now."

Exxon Mobil Corp. is at less than half capacity at its giant campus north of town. The energy giant initially reopened some facilities to employees who had private offices with doors.

Now about 40% of its workers at the campus, which houses more than 10,000, are able to return because building layouts were altered and cleaning procedures enhanced, says spokesman Todd Spitler. "We will make adjustments if and when they are needed," he said.

Shell Oil Co., the U.S. subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell PLC, last week suspended the first phase of its return to Houston offices, with the most of its staff reverting back to working from their homes.

Only critical staff running operations will still work from the office. The company had allowed about 11% of its approximately 7,000 Houston area employees to come back to work earlier this month, but reversed course as local case numbers climbed.

Others have reopened quicker. Most of the 2,300 employees at oil refiner Phillips 66 have returned to the office, moving back in phases since early May, with some working staggered shifts to reduce overall occupancy levels, spokesman Dennis Nuss says.

French oil company Total SA is keeping most of its 1,000 Houston employees at home for now. But the penthouse of its downtown building houses the Petroleum Club of Houston, which remains open. The club recently notified members that a Covid case was detected in the tower. The club's storied Bayou Bengal Bar closes several times a day for cleaning.

Those who have returned say the transition can be awkward. Shale driller Parsley Energy Inc. in Austin recalled 60 of the roughly 250 people who work at its headquarters. But after three months of isolation and video chats, in-house meetings -- which require face masks -- can be unnerving, CEO Matt Gallagher says.

"No one has perfected the first hello yet. We don't know if you bow or elbow bump," he said. Some have gone back to video chats even with others in the office, simply because they prefer to see the other person's unmasked face, which they can't do in a conference room, he added.

In San Antonio, Margaret Malone, a 54-year-old manager in claims operations at USAA, a financial-services company, volunteered to be among the first to pilot a return of fewer than 10% of the workforce to USAA's offices. She said she missed colleagues and the separation between her job and her personal life that going in to work provides.

She has her temperature taken upon entry, and wears a mask while away from her desk, which has been relocated to another spot in the office to allow for greater distancing. Any semblance of a normal routine is welcome, she says. "It gives me more of a sense of purpose: Hey, get up in the morning, get dressed, go to work."

With so few people in the office, parking is no longer a hassle, and she says her few co-workers are cheerful. "Everybody's happy to be here because I think they all are like, 'Thank God, something normal in this crazy world,'" she says.

Still, office life is changed. The few corporate employees of Dallas-based Remington Hotels, which operates properties for brands such as Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt, who returned to the office earlier this month can no longer get food delivered to their floor and meetings with more than three people are still held via Zoom, says Sloan Dean, the company's chief executive. At Academy Sports + Outdoors, in Katy, Tex., corporate employees must take their trash cans to a common bin to empty so that cleaning crews don't have to go around to every cubicle, to protect both employees and custodians.

Before workers can leave their buildings at the end of the day, chemical company LyondellBasell Industries NV requires them to take a survey on an app of people with whom they have come into close contact, says Kim Foley, the company's vice president of health, safety and environment.

Roughly a third of workers, fewer than 500 people, have been back in Lyondell's main offices this month, in separate, alternating groups, and the end-of-day polls would have helped with contract tracing if the company had a case. But starting Monday many of those workers will begin working from home again due to the spiking coronavirus cases, she said.

(MORE TO FOLLOW) Dow Jones Newswires

06-28-20 1411ET

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