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
- 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
- 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
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
- 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.