Human resources professionals are an agile group of people (but you already knew that, right?!). We are always shifting to keep up with the latest laws, workplace trends, HR tech innovations, employee needs and expectations, and now our latest challenge: the fallout from a global pandemic. This brings a multitude of new considerations to the workplace, and to HR professionals.
As the ambiguity of dates and times wane and more states lift non-essential business closure orders, HR is shifting their attention yet again--from creating productive remote work environments and ensuring the health and safety of essential workers, to crafting a strategy for an eventual (and in some cases imminent) return to the office. If only it were as easy as just welcoming everyone back as they left in March 2020!
The reality is that most workers returning to their usual physical working environment after a lengthy hiatus will experience many new procedures and protocols, most in the name of safety and security. And who better to ensure the safety and security of employees than us, HR?!
Get the Employee Perspective
One way to confirm you are implementing an employee-first return to the office is to survey or poll your employees in advance of the return. Find out how they are feeling. Do they feel safe? What are their top fears upon returning? This will allow you to gather and address as many concerns as possible. Remember that safety is a key part of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and if you have employees in a workplace who don’t feel safe it can have a detrimental effect on things like productivity, engagement, and morale.
Furthermore, many employees have grown accustomed to the psychological and physical safety of working remotely and returning to an office environment may bring about fear and anxiety. They might be asking questions to themselves or talking amongst each other about their concerns. Will there be hand sanitizer readily available? Will masks be required while in public spaces at work? Will there be sneeze guards over cubicles? What about the keep 6 feet apart from others recommendation?
Be sure to get out in front of commonly asked questions will well thought out solutions. For example, employees may clock in and clock out on the same time clock every day, so they may be concerned with touching a shared surface that dozens, or maybe even hundreds, of their coworkers also touch multiple times per day. Let them know how you’ll be cleaning it, and other shared items. Or, better yet, investigate avenues to reduce physical contact with the clock – RFID badges, facial biometrics, or a mobile/desktop app they can access from their personal device or workstation.
Getting ahead of employee concerns and questions by surveying them before returning to the office will only serve to further employee-first reopening initiatives. It shows that the organization is leading with empathy and care.
Contact Tracing Plans
Another question that might be top of mind for employees returning to work surrounds the protocols if a coworker feels or gets sick. Companies can work to alleviate apprehension and confusion by having and communicating a plan to support contact tracing.
COVID-19 will likely be part of our lives for the foreseeable future. Because patients can be asymptomatic for up to 2 weeks, it will be vital to quickly identify exposures as soon as possible once there is a confirmed case in the workplace to mitigate spread.
Consider that this must be done while protecting employee privacy and patient anonymity. Having a workforce management tool that can quickly analyze time and attendance records to identify every employee who may have come in contact with a confirmed or presumed COVID-19 patient will ensure this process is done rapidly but also with utmost sensitivity to the rights of the employee.
Flexibility & Creative Scheduling
Not all businesses are opening in the same way and at the same time. Geography matters, too. Some schools may be open, while others might not be. Employees that have been working remotely for months have grown used to being home to take care of family needs, including children, elderly parents, significant others, etc. They might be feeling less stress due to not having to commute to work, as well.
This is not a time for rigidity when it comes to scheduling. Again, in the spirit of empathy and care, consider flexible and creative scheduling solutions. While this might not be reality for some employers, if it can work for your organization your employees should reward you with increased morale and productivity.
Upskilling and Reskilling Employees
In many industries, returning to work will look very different from what employees are trained for. With new safety protocols and regulations in effect, workers will need to obtain new skills and competencies. Interpersonal communication and conflict management skills will become needed for workers that have to enforce policies that might have become polarizing, such as consumers being asked to wear a mask.
While it may seem like taking things one day at a time is prudent now, it is also an optimal time to begin thinking about our perceptions of roles within our companies, as the current crisis will have bigger implications on work moving forward. Talent and skills shortages are still prevalent, and companies need to consider different approaches regarding reskilling and upskilling their talent both now and in the future.
HR always walks a tightrope trying to balance company needs with employee needs. Returning to work is a perfect time for HR to be an advocate for both the company and the employee by combining business strategy and empathy when creating return to work policies.