There has been a lot written about the recently updated guidance from the CDC on how to protect people from the Delta variant of the Covid 19 virus.
How are managers supposed to react?
It’s a given that you want to create a safe working environment to help keep your employees, contractors, suppliers, and customers safe on-the-job.
And so it’s likely that you’ve been reading about the latest policies being rolled out by famous name corporations, such as United Airlines which recently mandated that all its employees get Covid vaccines. Or perhaps you’ve been looking at conflicting local and state regulations – such as those issued by Florida and Texas which discourage the implementation of mask and/or vaccine mandates – in an effort to trying to find a way forward for your organization.
It’s not easy to establish an effective response when the circumstances are changing so quickly. And, it goes without saying that there is no one-size-fits-all approach – not every solution works for every business.
What to do?
We suggest focusing on the needs and concerns of your employees.
It’s time to find out what are their concerns? What is their understanding of the current pandemic and how it affects them, their children, their families, and their friends?
What policies or programs can you put in place as a manager that can help make your employees feel more secure about either A) working in the office or B) working from home or C) a combination of the two e.g. a hybrid work environment?
In the following sections we will look at many of the common concerns that your employees may be facing, whether they are office workers, line managers, or HR or legal compliance officers.
Of course, these may not apply to all your employees, but we trust that you’ll find this to be a useful checklist when crafting your own plans for bringing workers back to the office.
And we’ll also provide some of the relevant news and data points, such as polling information or policies being implemented by government agencies or other corporations, to provide you additional resources for crafting your own plans.
What Office Workers Are Feeling
Let’s start by identifying some of the key concerns that your office employees might have – and what you can do about it.
1. Rising Concern about Covid Cases among Young School Children and Teachers
As K-12 kids return to school, parents are becoming understandably alarmed about reports that the Delta variant is more transmissible than the earlier Covid “Classic” and that children who are too young to get the vaccine are coming down with cases of the disease.
Understandably, this new situation is creating great anxiety and uncertainty among parents of young children. How can they return to the office if their school district resumes online instruction due to Covid?
Employers need to reach out and reassure these office workers that they will be taken care of if they need to continue working from home where they can supervise their children if online classes resume.
2. Overwhelming Covid Vaccine and Mask Anxiety
Employees are hearing conflicting advice in the media about Covid vaccines and mask policies.
A big majority of adults in the US have already received at least one shot of the Covid vaccine, and polls indicate that an overall majority of Americans approve of policies that mandate wear masks while indoors, such as in the office.
However, as we’re all aware, there are many others who are determined to not get the vaccine – nor will they accept a mask mandate under any circumstances. This opinion is reinforced by some state regulations, such those in Florida and Texas, where their respective state governors have issued executive orders restricting the implementation of vaccination requirements or mask mandates.
Before implementing a policy at your workplace, the first step employers should undertake is to find out from each of your workers how they feel about these issues and how you can accommodate them before issuing a top-down mandate.
(We’ll talk about some of the vaccine and mask policy options available to HR managers and legal compliance officers in the sections below.)
3. Waiting for FDA Approvals for Covid Vaccines and Booster Shots
The FDA is fast-tracking the long-awaited official regulatory approval of the new Covid vaccines – with reports suggesting they could be forthcoming by Thanksgiving.
This may help alleviate concerns about getting a Covid shot among the vaccine-hesitant population.
However, we’re not out of the woods yet as some of the most enthusiastic vaccine proponents are already clamoring for a third vaccine shot in order to boost their immune response the Delta variant.
Employers should be aware of this booster issue, it might become barrier to entry for workers preferring to wait for a third Covid vaccine (booster) shot before returning to the office.
4. Distress over Returning to the Office
Looking back on it now, it’s quite remarkable that during 2020 so many office workers were able to pack up their things and quickly resume business activities while working from home.
Nonetheless the change was quite dramatic and it took quite a bit of effort to get used to working from home (WFH).
For many, they view this as a permanent change; indeed quite a few people moved from crowded city apartments to homes in rural exurbs where they can enjoy a better quality of life and a lower cost of living. And even those people who did not move have come to appreciate the added flexibility that comes from working from home.
Now in many cases managers are asking their workers to return to the office.
However, you shouldn’t underestimate how stressful this request can be for people.
It represents another round of change and disruption in people’s lives.
5. Unease about Resuming Regular Office Activities
Many employees may harbor specific objections about returning to the office. As an employer, you should investigate what these concerns are so you can address them.
For example, workers may be concerned about whether you are following CDC guidance in making the environment at the office safe for their return. They may be concerned about sanitizing protocols in common areas, such as restrooms; how they will maintain social distancing on the job; or whether there will be sufficient air circulation and ventilation in their work area.
Eating at work may be another concern; whereas in the past, workers may have gone out to eat in area restaurants, but that may no longer be a viable option. On the other hand, some employees may avoid gathering in the company cafeteria without reassurance about improved safety protocols and sanitizing procedures. (One solution could be offering outdoor seating areas for eating meals.)
One way to tackle this issue head-on is to invest in your office environment by updating it with new layouts – ones that space people further apart – and demonstrate your commitment to employee safety and well-being.
6. Domestic Conflicts when Working from Home: Discord in the Home Office
We have touched on workers’ anxiety about returning to the office, but it turns out that working from home can bring about its own set of stressful situations.
For example, there are now reports that families are having disagreements over who should get priority access to the best workplace and/or computer in the home office.
Savvy employers should try to pick up on these domestic conflicts as it might affect worker productivity – but it might also serve as a reason to encourage workers to return to the office when the time is right.
7. Lockdown Anxiety and Mental Health Issues
Thanks to the Delta variant, widespread stress caused by the Covid pandemic is back, and it’s creating another wave of anxiety. As a result, many among us are questioning our well-being and mental health.
Employers need to be sensitive to this issue.
Consider conducting nonjudgmental mental health awareness training and provide explanations of the mental health counseling benefits your employee health plan offers.
Emphasize how your workers can receive confidential mental health counseling if they feel they need it, without having to alert their co-workers or managers.
8. Is it a Golden Age for Introverts?
How do you address the slice of your workforce that prefers conducting business online and through Zoom meetings – and never wants to return to the office?
In this case, we’re talking about the quiet “introvert” personality types who may feel that working from home is the way to go.
You may need to seek permanent accommodation for this type of worker because, as we’ll discuss in the recruiting and retention section below, they may opt to leave for another employer rather than be obliged to return to the office full time.
9. Address Angst among Extroverts
On the other hand, many extrovert workers can’t wait to return to socializing in the office.
As a result, these types of employees may be quite distressed by the prospect of continuing to work from home.
They miss bouncing ideas off each other face-to-face, as well as the team-building opportunities and spontaneous in-person collaboration that comes with working together under the same roof.
What Line Managers are Feeling
Managers who oversee teams of workers also need your attention. They may be experiencing a complex set of emotions and concerns about their role within the organization at this time.
10. How to Cope with a Perceived Loss of Control
One of the most common concerns for line managers is a perceived loss of control. As people managers, they have built up a series of tried-and-true management strategies that help them create departments that are productive and work well together as a cohesive team.
But, with Covid, many of these rules no longer apply, and they are having to cope with considerable change as a result.
Among the issues facing line managers are:
- Keeping tabs on what employees are doing on a daily basis without seeming intrusive or being perceived as an unhelpful micromanager.
- How to train new employees when most of their co-workers are working from home (the newbies won’t get the organic on-the-job training that comes from working with their peers in the office).
- It’s harder to build cohesive teams when workers are spread out.
- And it’s difficult to evaluate employee performance when doing traditional end of year reviews; many of the traditional tools, such as 360 reviews, seem less appropriate in an online work environment.
Fortunately, there are some solutions. Many colleges and universities are now offering management courses specifically for overseeing online or hybrid work teams.
And the “boss as servant” approach works very well in an online environment; by making yourself available to help your workers with difficult issues, it will help improve communication and problem solving without seeming like a micromanager.
11. Prevent Vitriol and Lack of Civility from Poisoning Office Politics
We’ve all seen signs of a breakdown in civil society. You only have to drive around your neighborhood to see instances of drivers no longer stopping at stop signs or yelling at each other at the slightest provocation. Home break-ins, car jackings, and physical assaults are also on the rise in many urban areas.
There is no question that people are on edge, and in many cases, they are taking it out on social media with the emergence of take-it-or-leave-it “tribal” politics that takes acts of compromise off the table.
As workers return to the office, employers need to be proactive to prevent this kind of vitriol and lack of civility and decency from poisoning the office politics and creating an unbearable work environment.
12. Sustain and Encourage Creative Collaboration, such as Brainstorming
Managers are also worried about sustaining creativity when many workers are away from the office.
How can you recreate the type of spontaneous interactions that can lead to new ideas and solutions that drive your business forward?
This may be a way to lure people back to the office by scheduling a number of unstructured social events where the focus is on re-acquainting with old faces and introducing new ones.
Meeting outside could be the way to go, so getting your outdoor facilities in order would be a good idea.
13. Motivate Salespeople in an Online World
Salespeople are dependent on meeting with prospects and customers, so the shift to working online has been quite a seismic change in sales tactics.
For some, conducting online Zoom sales meetings has actually been a boon to productivity – many salespeople report they have been able to close more business during the pandemic because they can eliminate travel time, fitting in back-to-back sales calls. They also report that many prospects are more open to taking a cold call Zoom meeting than scheduling a traditional in-person meeting.
On the other hand, some salespeople find this new way of working to be difficult to adapt to. They may need more training on how to make the best of it. You can also help by seeking out best sales practices in your industry as well as investing in other ways to keep sales relationships alive.
14. Wariness about Business Travel
We’ve mentioned the lack of civility in public and the plight of salespeople who have been forced to conduct many sales calls on Zoom. This combination is having an impact on business travel.
In a recent podcast, the CEO of American Airlines, Doug Parker, points out that business travel is coming back, albeit at a slower rate than leisure travel. In his view, Zoom meetings will actually help grow their business travel market over time, as people who meet over Zoom will eventually want to meet face-to-face.
However, Parker points out that a major concern for all airlines is the number of in-flight incidents, which have doubled at American Airlines this past year, despite having far fewer flights.
Business travelers also may need to show their vaccination status (and/or a negative Covid test) as well as follow local rules when traveling to overseas destinations.
15. Ensure IT Security when Employees Work from Home (WFH)
IT managers are concerned about maintaining secure access to confidential company data when so many employees are working outside of the office.
Not only is it a risk to company assets, it’s also expensive: providing support to offsite employees can be more costly than issuing standard computer equipment that stays in the office. And IT support personnel will face another round of upgrade woes as workers attempt to upgrade to Windows 11 later this year.
What HR Managers and Legal Compliance Officers are Thinking
What’s keeping your HR managers and legal compliance team members up at night?
Here are a few of their key concerns:
16. Keeping Up with Conflicting or Fast Changing Regulations
Keeping up to date with the latest Covid safety and regulatory guidance has been a challenge throughout the pandemic, as businesses moved quickly to revamp their interiors to increase social distancing and ramp up their sanitation protocols.
The availability of Covid vaccines earlier this year also increased compliance questions.
Early on, the issue was whether asking an employee about their vaccination status was a HIPAA violation or not (it’s not, but avoid asking any further questions about protected health information, as that would trigger a HIPAA violation).
Next comes the issue of mask mandates and vaccination requirements.
This is proving a headache for managers, as it has become a political hot potato, with governors of states such as Texas and Florida now issuing executive orders discouraging vaccine mandates or mask-wearing requirements, while other agencies, including the CDC and many other states and local governments, are doing the opposite.
The solutions that companies have come up with range from a straight-up vaccine mandate for all employees (e.g. United Airlines, Methodist Hospital in the Texas Medical Center); a carrot-and-stick approach, with a carrot offering increased benefits for vaccinated employees (such as direct payments, additional time off, or increased healthcare coverage benefits if you get Covid) and a stick, such as repeated Covid testing (weekly or even daily) and restrictions on approved employee travel for unvaccinated workers; or finally, just a policy that relies on a purely voluntary approach to employee vaccination.
17. How to Establish Covid Safety Policies at Work
Obviously, each situation is different, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
The best advice is to follow the CDC guidance on bringing people back to the office.
Make sure your ventilation systems are upgraded (as needed) and that you offer a bit more room for your employees to work.
If you are tight on space, a hybrid work schedule might be the solution to avoid overcrowding while we still deal with the pandemic. Outside work areas are also becoming an important part of the solution.
Masks are a good idea now that we know that even vaccinated workers can transmit the Delta variant to others, as well as new evidence that people who had “classic” Covid are vulnerable to the Delta variant.
Presenteeism has become a critical issue, any employee who shows signs of sneezing or allergies should be masked and asked to return home. Compared to the original Covid, the new Delta variant often presents itself with symptoms of sneezing, sniffling, and itchy eyes.
It’s not worth the risk to infect others in the office.
Finally, communication of your plan is critical. Employees want clear guidance on what they can expect when returning to the office.
18. Recruiting and Retention during “The Great Resignation”
The economy is certainly issuing confusing signals.
On the one hand, unemployment is way down, according the latest jobs report, and we can see signs that companies are having trouble finding workers, with many reports of extreme recruiting campaigns and large signing bonuses.
On the other hand, however, it seems that many Americans are having trouble getting a job. We’ll look into this situation in a future article.
But for now, it’s clear that the well qualified have the pick of job opportunities — and they know it.
Many of these workers are taking advantage of the low unemployment rates and are seeking out new job opportunities in what has been dubbed “The Great Resignation.”
Employers need to keep close tabs on their most valued workers to anticipate any signs of them jumping ship and being prepared to meet a competitor’s job offer head-on.
Also, as we’ve mentioned earlier, many workers are now very comfortable working from home, and having taken a bite of the apple, a return to a 9-5 job and a long commute can be a deal-breaker.
Employers may need to maintain flexibility by offering hybrid working conditions to keep these employees on board.
Also, in a tight labor market, some leading companies are taking a pledge to eliminate the checkbox for past criminal behavior that is typically found on most job applications. These business leaders say that those who have served their time deserve to re-enter society and be offered job opportunities to help meet labor shortages and also reduce the cycle of recidivism.
Finally, employers will need to redouble their efforts to make their work environments a pleasant, attractive place to come to work every day. It’s not only good for your brand, it is an important recruiting and retention tool.
19. Compensation Packages Based on Where You Live?
Tech and finance companies were among the first businesses to allow people to work from home, a trend that led many companies in other industries to follow suit.
The Delta variant is causing many of these same firms to push back a return to the office until at least the start of 2022.
But one thing has caught our eye – the new concept of tying compensation to where you live.
The idea, first proposed by Facebook it seems, is that workers who moved to rural areas with a lower cost of living (e.g. far enough away from the office that they cannot return to the office, even on a hybrid work schedule basis) should not be compensated at the same rate as those who are living near the office, albeit in a much more costly urban real estate environment.
This is a sticky wicket for sure, but it is something that HR compensation teams are watching closely.
20. Managing Skills Shortages with Outsourcing and Automation
The final thing that HR managers and operations executives are thinking about is the long-term nature of work.
They are waking up to the possibility that many tasks, particularly the least interesting ones, can be automated.
Given the examples of the past, such as the introduction of desktop PCs which helped usher out the traditional role of secretaries and the typing pool, and online shopping that has reduced demand for brick-and-mortar stores, are we going to see another wave of business automation that changes the workforce in the office?
Rapid advances in AI and other technologies, such as robots, might help with future labor shortages, but they might also significantly change the nature of office work.
This is just one of the many issues that HR and operations execs need to consider as part of their future business plans.
Formaspace is Your Partner for Productivity and Safe Well Being in the Office
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Talk to your Formaspace Design Consultant today about how we can make your office environment safer, more productive, and attractive to today’s employees.
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