13 Oct Considerations For HR: Preparing Your Workforce For An Uncertain Future
In New York, the number of active Covid-19 cases has plummeted compared to the start of the crisis. However, health experts continue to warn of a potential second wave coming in the fall. Schools are reopening and behaviors have shifted; people are going to restaurants and socializing with friends and family. These returns to behavioral norms can be helpful to the emotional and mental state of your employees; however, they can also lead to some irresponsible decision-making by companies.
Let’s face it: Our employees and the public are fatigued by the quarantine and the constant restrictions to our normal lives. This fatigue has no doubt contributed to some companies’ decisions to loosen the reins and a flurry of employee questions centered around returning to the office and team get-togethers. In my opinion, the best way to prepare for a potential second wave is to hold steady to the protective actions taken during the height of the pandemic. In other words, HR and companies need to keep their foot on the gas.
Weighing Employees’ Emotional Needs
By this point, we have had to adapt to the new working environment and find ways to keep productivity levels up. From what I have experienced, the majority of the requests to return to the office setting have been centered around the social aspects of the job. This is still extremely important to factor in when deciding a path forward, as we know happy employees are often more productive. However, putting even one employee’s physical health at risk eliminates this as a possibility for me. Maintaining employee well-being and safety must still be the top priority when making our decisions to evolve policy during the pandemic.
But what about our employees’ mental and emotional states, you ask? That is a real issue we need to consider. I argue that there may be far more damage done to our employees’ mental and emotional state by reopening offices too soon and then having to revert back to remote setups due to a spike — or even worse, an employee contracting the virus and spreading it to others. The ripple effect of an employee contracting the virus because of a too-early return to the office could be forever life-altering to them and others. It is with that weight and seriousness that I make my recommendation to keep up with our policies and practices.
There are additional factors as well to think about for employees — daycare, commuting, home space restrictions, the list goes on. At the end of the day, I believe HR teams can better serve their companies and teams by working through solutions for those remote working environment challenges than put any employee’s health at risk.
Every day new solutions and ideas are coming to the surface for how to handle these challenges. A great way for companies to support their employees with childcare, eldercare or self-care needs is by providing flexible work arrangements, such as flex work schedules, compressed workweeks, reduced schedules and a leave of absence when necessary. Having lived in NYC for years, space limitations at home is a challenge I can attest to. Staff with small workspaces can be educated on ways to set up a productive home office and maximize their square footage. Employers can also partner with their health insurance providers to deliver an ergonomic training program for employees.
Additionally, burnout is a very real problem with the remote work environment, as many find themselves working longer hours due to the lack of an arrival and departure time from the office. The mental health of employees needs to be monitored by employers. Companies need to insist that people are taking breaks during the day to clear their minds, using their vacation days to recharge and setting clear start and stop times to their day. These tactics can help employees avoid feeling like they are in an endless work cycle. This is key to a company’s success, as mentally healthy employees are more productive employees.
Be Prepared To Adapt On Short Notice
The next question for many is what if your company already opened its doors and people have returned to the office? That is a scenario that many HR professionals need to think through. My advice is to be overly prepared and flexible with your policies and procedures in the event that a second wave or an emergency of any other kind occurs and you need to revert back to a remote working environment quickly. Have scenarios planned out and be clear on the policies you will implement for each, inclusive of a communications plan crafted around it.
One of the main learnings we’ve experienced as a result of this crisis is that communication with employees is vital, and it is leadership and HR’s role to keep everyone informed and prepared. Part of being prepared for an emergency is informing employees that it is possible that they may revert back to a remote working environment, which means you need to think through business contingency. Including leadership and HR, all employees should be ready to adjust at a moment’s notice, which means doing things that allow them to be flexible — digitally backing up work, scheduling meetings with remote access, bringing laptops home each night. With preparation and forethought, you can hope to lessen the shock to the system and keep productivity levels stable in the case of that event.
People and employees who are eager to return to normal work life may push back on these recommendations, which is understandable. But with so many uncertainties related to the pandemic and what is to come, I would rather plan for the worst and hope for the best. Putting your employees’ health first and taking extra precautions may not be the crowd-pleasing answer, but as HR professionals and members of society, we should aim to do what is right — not what is easy.