Building on lessons learned since early-March, most large organizations (those employing >1,000 people) are including contingencies for a resurgence of the COVID-19 virus into their return to the workplace planning, according to new data from the Institute for corporate Productivity (i4cp).
The repeated warnings of health professionals and scientists that we should be prepared for the potential resurgence of infections this coming fall are being heeded by most organization’s leaders, who are building this possible scenario into their return to workplace strategies.
Although the leadership of most organizations remains very much occupied with pandemic response, the roll-out of return to the workplace (RTW) strategies appears to be unhurried, not unsurprising given the unpredictability of the virus, and the variances in responses and stay-at-home mandates from one region of the U.S. to another (even from one county to another), not to mention the immeasurable global considerations.
Return to the workplace strategy is still in the discussion and planning stages at most (a combined 75%) larger organizations; just 21% of larger organizations reported last week that they have implemented their plans.
The Practical Considerations of Returning to the Workplace (or Not)
With one or two exceptions, most of the 385 HR professionals who participated in last week’s i4cp survey noted that work that can be performed from home will continue to be performed at home, and in most cases this means indefinitely.
And it’s clear from many of the open-ended responses to the survey that organizations are proactively pulsing their employees and making decisions informed by feedback from their workforces about what’s working and what isn’t. Empowering employees to self-determine what will best support both their professional and personal priorities is a common theme, as is the commitment to remaining as flexible as possible (at least for now).
“Our focus is on complete flexibility in terms of ways of working and working from anywhere. We will continue the great work we're experiencing right now to ensure we don't find ourselves back in our old patterns,” one executive noted. “What we're doing is working and we're mapping out how this can be injected into our furloughed employees as we begin our plans for reintegration.”
The obvious primary consideration for return to the workplace strategies is the restoration (to one degree or another) of essential infrastructures such as schools, eldercare, childcare centers, and public transportation, which most organizations have communicated to their workforces.
But disparities in how the pandemic has affected individuals or groups can unintentionally arise or be exacerbated by ambiguous communication about the who, why, and how of returning to the workplace.
While many organizations are telling their employees that returning to the workplace is or will be strictly voluntary, several survey respondents noted that there is no time period associated with that message. Does this mean for now? For the next six months? Until schools reopen? Until you feel safe?
One survey respondent noted, “Executive leaders are making returning to the office (when it reopens) voluntary, but it’s not been clear on how long “voluntary” means—creating a lot of tension around the uncertainty from populations on whom COVID-19 is having a deeper negative impact. In communications about this, the language doesn't acknowledge the intersectionality of stressors and the benefits of continuing to allow employees to stay fully remote.”
The policies and practices that employers are continuing with or putting into place to support their employees who are working from home, particularly in the event that schools, etc. are closed for the foreseeable future include:
- Expanding flexible working arrangements/updating work from home policies indefinitely
- Reconsidering and further flexing understanding of "work hours" and traditional thought about "core hours" to allow for great degree of flexibility
- Setting up times for employees to return to the workplace to safely retrieve personal items, equipment, and supplies to take home with them
- Ask employees to take half of their vacation by mid-year and allow flexibility with vacation carry-over
- Review/adjust current benefit plans (e.g., expand wellness programs—offer more resources to support various employee needs) and drive adoption of employee wellness programs, with particular focus on emotional/mental health and well-being
- Provision of online tutoring support for children (some mentioned offering stipends of between $50 and $100 per week to cover this)
- Reimbursing employees for purchases of ergonomic chairs and high speed internet stipends
- Limiting or creating enterprise wide “blackout” periods for email and video meetings (specified days/times)
- Creating a hardship PTO pool; allow employees to donate/share PTO time
- PTO option to borrow against unaccrued paid time off that one would have earned in 2020
- Expect leaders to create WFH frameworks and remote work principles to keep employees and teams engaged, productive, and feeling a sense of community
- Launching continuous listening to ensure timely feedback and adjustments
- Reinforcing importance of leadership development through digital on-demand content on leadership topics that are most relevant to being successful in the current environment (e.g., resilience)
- Create an integrated plan of communications and virtual leadership events to keep people informed about decisions and business context, and to create a strong sense of connection
When Being Onsite is a Necessity
In the direct service-related and manufacturing industries, companies are limited to what they can offer employees, to include broad leave policies that go beyond what is provided for in the Family Care Act. Among those that are continuing onsite operations or reopening, assuming that schools and other essential institutions and services are up and running, the most common strategies mentioned for keeping or safely retuning employees to the workplace are:
- Temperature checks at the entrances to the workplace
- Providing masks and gloves in the workplace and requiring that employees use them
- Plentiful disinfecting/sanitizing supplies for employee and customer use
- Redesigning the physical space to accommodate social distancing (e.g., cube placement in a spaced checkerboard pattern, installing barriers and partitions)
- Offering additional support mechanisms such as on-site day care and onsite EAP services
- Partnering with local daycare providers to provide services to employees. One survey respondent noted, “We will continue this practice as long as schools and childcare centers are closed.”
- Temporary emergency policies, for example: Caregiver Leave of Absence (allows for up to 10 paid days to cover time away from work) and Caregiver Allowance (allows for up to $50 USD per day, up to a maximum of $2,000 to assist with COVID-related caregiver costs)
In many organizations, managers are assessing each individual employee's needs to determine the best path forward. The overarching theme of the nearly 250 narrative responses to this latest survey is that among those organizations that can operate remotely, there is no rush to get back in the office; the focus remains on supporting everyone in the organization professionally, personally, and emotionally.
One final, but significant note: of those 250 comments, only one mentioned performance monitoring of employees who are working from home.
As one HR professional suggested: “In general, the focus should be less on policies and more on principles—moving away from the constraints of policies and treating people like adults instead.”
No matter what’s ahead, that’s how we get through this.
For more COVID-19 and Return to the Workplace research and resources, visit our Coronavirus Employer Resource Center.