The Human Resources Dilemma: Returning to Work During COVID

June 3, 2020

COVID-19 has fundamentally changed how businesses will operate for the foreseeable future, and with very little guidance provided by governments and authorities to navigate the landscape successfully, HR leaders are understandably feeling a lot of pressure. They are, naturally, at the crux of their companies’ returning to work decisions, as they’re responsible for keeping employees safe and informed and making them feel comfortable with their decisions.

Many companies want to reopen, but are finding that bringing employees back to work presents some serious liability issues that they simply can’t afford to risk. With no definitive answers, no easy way to mitigate risk entirely, and with testing and vaccines such a long way away, it feels like HR professionals are “on their own” to make critical decisions that could affect an entire business.

Developing a Return to Work Strategy

Small and medium-sized businesses in particular are looking at what other, larger companies are doing to reopen, as they don’t want to be considered an “outlier” in their chosen protocols, but ultimately HR leaders will need to make more customized decisions based on their assessments of the business’s needs.

Coretha Rushing – an Executive Mentor at Merryck & Co. and highly accomplished human resources consultant and professional with nearly 40 years of experience – explained in a recent webinar hosted by SHRM and co-presented with Evident’s CEO, David Thomas that “local governments are over-laying restrictions [on return to work policies] that have nothing to do with federal laws, so it ends up looking like a quilt with different regulations stitched together. There’s no one panacea that’s going to fit every company,” she added. “It’ll be predicated on the level of trust and confidence you get from your employees in what you’re doing.”

Since we’re still in the beginning stages of returning to work during the COVID pandemic, each company is trying to figure out what’s going to work for them based on the type of business they operate, the work they do, and the employees they have. Putting basic protocols in place that we know are working (e.g. physical distancing and wearing masks) is certainly a great place to start and, in some areas, a requirement.

To customize your company’s specific return to work protocol, start by asking yourself WHY you want to bring your employees back. Is it because you have a big building and you need to fill it with people? Is it because you’re seeing a decline in productivity with employees working from home? Do you have equipment at work or a customer location that must be used or maintained?

Here are a few solutions for HR leaders to consider:

  • Allow your employees to continue remote work, unless they are essential or business-critical – and don’t neglect the continual effort to be more effective with your remote workforce
  • Try a phased approach to bringing employees back to the workplace – start out with fewer employees, and gradually increase as they begin to feel safer
  • Alternate worker shifts by day and time to avoid exposure
  • Issue a company-wide survey to get a feel for who’s comfortable coming back to work
    • This can help your employees feel reassured that you’re listening to them and establish trust

Next, HR leaders should assess their organization’s employee landscape to develop the most appropriate return to work strategy. Consider the following:

  • How many employees are part-time, full-time, contract, hourly workers, etc.? This will necessitate different protocol needs.
  • Are you willing to be consistent with your return to work protocol? If not, employees will invent their own way of returning to work.
  • Is the upper management or leadership team willing to be consistent with your return to work protocol? They should be instrumental in setting an example.
  • How often can you test and tweak your return to work protocol?

Building Trust with Transparency

No return to work protocol at any company will succeed without first establishing trust between leadership and employees.

There’s often a lack of trust between employees and leadership at most organizations, which means employees will ultimately choose to follow what they want to follow. This is especially true in today’s climate where everyone gets their news from different sources, resulting in a broad range of opinions about the risk posed by the virus.

“One issue is that there are varying levels of belief about the seriousness and whether people should follow the recommended protocols,” Rushing said. “As you build out routines and processes and a communications plan, it’s important for HR and leadership to understand there will be people who aren’t in alignment with decisions the company is making. Some might feel that these measures aren’t necessary, and then there are those who think the protocol doesn’t go far enough. That’s why you need to communicate the nonnegotiable, because no protocol will satisfy every employee or leader.”

Organizations that leverage employee health data to reopen safely could use one or more of the following strategies to provide open, honest communications that establish trust to enhance workplace safety:

  • Be clear about the health data you’re collecting and why, and who will have access to it.
  • Share anonymized insights gleaned from employee health data (e.g. “We had 450 employees who came in this a week and 25 of the employees were asked to go home for their safety and for your safety.”)
  • Communicate your protocol effectively, and recruit upper management to set an example for compliance with your chosen protocol
    • Employees will put their trust in the leadership team, which helps them to better stick to the plan

If the HR team can set the stage from the beginning and be transparent, with clear and concise messaging, and if they can successfully activate leadership teams to demonstrate compliance, employees will follow the safety protocols.

Prioritizing Physical & Mental Health

In addition to building trust, HR leaders should also consider implementing return-to-work strategies that prioritize their employees’ physical and mental health. Again, different companies will have different needs, which will necessitate different protocols.

One might include things like alternating shifts to enable people to adhere to 6-foot distancing requirements (physical health), for example, while another might incorporate more virtual engagements – like happy hours, lunches, and fitness classes. No matter what your strategy entails, your employee communication should include detailed information around their access to mental health resources. Companies are seeing an uptick in the number of employees calling for mental health support via Employee Assistance Programs (EAP). Encouraging them to do so makes them feel safe and comfortable with coming back to work.

Another thing to consider is that your work facility is not just where your employees work –– it might also be frequented by contractors, third parties, vendors, and other guests. Employees might have rightful concerns about whether these people will be following similar (or better) protocols to make sure they’re safe.

HR professionals may not be responsible for outside contractors and vendors that come in, but they are responsible for bolstering employees’ perception that they’re being kept safe in an environment where lots of outsiders are coming into their work facility.

Other examples of strategies that prioritize employees’ physical and mental health include:

  • Modifying work spaces to meet new physical distancing requirements, or alternating shifts for different teams to limit exposure
  • Organizing virtual activities that help employees “blow off steam” (e.g. virtual happy hours, lunches, fitness classes, cocktail tutorials, etc.)
  • Connecting employees to EAP programs to help them better cope with increasing pressures at work and at home.
  • Evaluating and implementing systems that can help you better monitor employee health statuses daily so your company will assume less risk when they return to the workplace.

How to Monitor Employees’ Health

There’s no such thing as eliminating risk entirely, but an effective tactic that most companies are beginning to adopt is an employee health monitoring program that collects and analyzes employee health data given before the start of each work day, whether off-site or on-premise.

Health Monitoring is important because it enables companies to collect data in order to make good business decisions. It also gives companies a way to communicate quickly with employees and notify them if anything happens. Health monitoring also helps reduce company liability by creating a record, so business leaders can effectively demonstrate that tangible action was taken to protect their employees.

Incorporating health monitoring into your overarching return-to-work strategy requires implementing a solution that:

  • Makes it easier for employees to communicate their symptoms, temperatures, exposure to the virus, etc.
  • Helps you keep track of who’s entering and exiting the building and potentially exposing other employees
  • Helps you aggregate data so you can demonstrate accountability and avoid liability associated with returning to work
  • Creates consistency so you can establish trust between you and your workers and show them you have their best interests in mind

There are a lot of ways that people are coming back to work, but the ability to collect data that you can take immediate action on and make important decisions on is what’s critical. These tools and technologies exist to help HR leaders communicate this sensitive information with their employees so you can make smart decisions. If something were to happen, people want to know that their employers can notify them quickly and give them a detailed course of action.

Employee health monitoring can’t happen without a process that enables easy and quick data transfer, data analysis, data protection, and seamless communication to reduce a company’s liability. Other things to consider when implementing a health monitoring solution include:

  • Security: Securing employee health data is critical to achieving positive outcomes while using health monitoring technologies. No matter what health monitoring method you use, it must be able to secure personal data so that it is not at risk of a breach.
  • Compliance: Employee health monitoring tools must demonstrate compliance with EEOC regulations, public health guidelines, and data privacy laws in order to protect their employees.
  • Risk Management: Never assume there’s zero risk of virus transfer. Health monitoring only helps you understand what’s going on within your work facility. Companies have little control over other variables like public transport.
  • Privacy: Protecting your employees’ privacy is key to establishing trust between employers and employees. If you want your employees to participate in a health monitoring program, they have to be confident their privacy will be maintained. This cannot be understated.

“Communicating data collection practices prevents liability,” Rushing explained. “Timely data will provide tangible evidence that you’re doing all you can to protect your employees within the four walls of your organization. You can’t protect them outside the organization, other than to reinforce what we’re hearing from public health experts and scientists, but this will help you set up greater safety and protection.”

Watch a recording of this webinar here.

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