In the last year and a half, the coronavirus pandemic disrupted work in ways we never saw coming; business executives were forced to reorganize their business models to remain in business and cushion the effect of the pandemic. As part of these responses, businesses remodeled their work structures to allow most of their employees to work from home. While this might have helped companies get the needed output level, it came with enormous challenges, including increased workplace stress, inadequate technology, and worsened social isolation. Now, with widespread vaccinations and declining infection rates, employers are considering reopening their office buildings fully.
This will not be an easy decision for employers—and employees alike.
A survey by the American Psychological Association found that 49 percent of adults feel uncomfortable with the idea of returning to in-person duties at the office. Another study by Envoy found that 66 percent of employees said concerns about their health and safety at work might prevent them from returning to the office.
So for organizations, it will not be business as usual. These employee concerns and fears are the levers needed to drive a thriving post-pandemic workplace. Therefore, your office is not ready to fully reopen if the following changes are not initiated.
Revisit Your Work Culture
There is a growing trend in the corporate world where businesses are seeing massive resignations of workers due to shifting perspectives and needs spurring sharp career changes. The Great Resignation is forcing employers to re-evaluate their company’s pre-pandemic value systems and how these are affecting employee behavior.
The lockdowns and social isolation that came with the outbreak gave many employees ample time to reflect on what truly matters to them and what they want out of work going forward. This paradigm shift is greatly influencing employee behavior and, for the employer, it should drive the workplace in the new normal.
Employees now desire a workplace that prioritizes their health, not just their physical health, but also financial, emotional, and mental health. Workers faced dire times in their lives during the pandemic; with the loss of loved ones, financial stress, and heightened anxiety and depression, workers are coming back to the offices distressed. Therefore, one of the metrics they’ll be assessing their employers by is how much support you can offer them at this time.
What plans have you communicated to your employees regarding mental health support? What policy changes have been made to employee benefits and compensations in your organization? How will you address workplace stress going forward? Are there measures in place to support workers’ financial wellness?
These are the key post-pandemic metrics for the workplace. If you currently don’t have answers to these questions or do not meet the demands of the new normal, your office is not ready to fully reopen, and you may soon become a victim of the mass resignations shaking up the corporate world.
These disruptions require major changes to policy your organizational value system to rebuild your company into an entity that places value on the employees’ overall wellbeing. Therefore, you may need to revisit your corporate wellness strategies, financial wellness initiatives, and the role of your employee assistance programs. Engage your workers in an effective feedback loop to know what they need and what solutions work for them, and infuse these solutions into the fabric of your organization.
Create health and safety guidelines
Safety is a basic human need, and although it has always been of concern in the workplace, it is now considered crucial following the pandemic. Employees want to see the concrete steps your organization is taking to mitigate their health risks in the context of the pandemic.
Even in the vaccinated, there are still cases of breakthrough infections, which could be potentially life-threatening in people with co-morbidities. Consequently, workers with chronic diseases, including diabetes and high blood pressure, are not taking chances—and they don’t want you to either. There is also general anxiety of transmitting the virus while vaccinated to unvaccinated persons and children, who may eventually drive clusters and waves of infection.
These are valid concerns for any employer seeking to reopen fully.
What are your guidelines for COVID-19 testing, screening, and vaccination? Will you be instituting a mask or vaccine mandate? Are people going to be allowed to work freely without wearing masks? Are your workers going to be subject to routine health checks, such as temperature checks and symptom screening? These guidelines should be spelled out in your new policies and mirror local guidelines.
For instance, while employers can mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for all workers according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, they must also consider certain valid concerns for exemptions.
Under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), employers must provide reasonable accommodations to workers with a disability that exempt them from vaccination. In this situation, employers must engage with the employees to determine changes that must be made to their work structure as a result of these accommodations. Under federal legislation, workers with sincerely-held religious beliefs that preclude COVID-19 vaccinations must be accommodated sufficiently without discrimination. Although what counts as a “sincerely held” religious belief is difficult to establish, employers must state what religious accommodations are allowed and how they may impact the employee’s work structure.
Your health and safety guidelines must also be explicit on steps to be taken once an employee reports their illness. Your strategies must include effective containment and isolation of the employee as well as communication with local health authorities. Your policy must encourage workers who are ill or who have been exposed to the coronavirus to report their illness and exposure and stay at home whether or not they have taken a COVID-19 test.
If employees fear that they may lose their jobs when calling in sick, they’ll come in anyway but avoid reporting their symptoms. This, in turn, diminishes your workplace safety plans and potentially puts others at risk.
Your workplace safety guidelines must also contain other risk mitigation strategies and basic infection prevention measures, such as social distancing, regular cleaning of surfaces, hand sanitizing, changes to the physical work structure to curb transmission, and information on hygiene practices for employees and visitors.
Rethink your work model
While business owners seek to get everyone back into the office to keep operations running as close to normal as possible, a new normal is upon us. It has become clear that not everyone has to work onsite to get the job done.
Engage with employees and HR managers to determine which functions, job tasks, and roles need a return to onsite work to be productive and which can continue to work virtually. At the same time, put an employee’s needs in context. Run an employee assessment to see how they feel about different work types, what their particular needs are with each type, and which types promote their overall well-being and productivity.
Many companies are already implementing hybrid work models that will replace the conventional work pattern. For instance, Microsoft designed a 50/50 hybrid work model that allows employees to work from home at least half of the time and work onsite the rest of the time. Employees are also allowed to negotiate more time remotely based on their needs.
Similarly, Citigroup has reimagined its work program, allowing a 50 percent split between hybrid/remote work and onsite work.
Besides determining who or what role best fits the remote model, employers must provide the requisite technology and support for remote workers. You must create plans to combat work-from-home fatigue, open communication channels to ensure remote workers are kept in the loop and re-invent your wellness offerings to meet workers where they work.
Even if your organization needs all workers back in the office, develop the right plan for this. Create a staggered approach to getting your staff back into the office to assess, mitigate, and manage COVID-19 risks properly.
GHA For Business
Global Healthcare Accreditation (GHA) has launched GHA For Business, a program that provides external validation of an organization’s commitment to the safety, health, and well-being of its employees, customers, and visitors. It is designed for any organization focused on return-to-work strategies, sustaining a culture of resiliency, and developing a more purposeful vision, mission, and values around well-being.
The initiative demonstrates an employer’s commitment to employee safety and health while building confidence and trust in an employer’s capacity to reopen the workplace safely. GHA For Business helps organizations develop clear, transparent, and informed policies that focus on mitigation of infection risk, maintaining a safe working environment, and prioritization of employee health and well-being.
GHA for Business helps organizations develop key accreditation elements, including emergency preparedness and response plan, safety conformity and compliance, risk management, benefits alignment, and a commitment to employees’ physical, mental, and emotional well-being.