The post-pandemic return to work is fraught with challenges – from ensuring the physical and mental well-being of employees and the safety of the actual workplace to attracting and retaining an empowered workforce who successfully maintained productivity without coming into the office for an entire year. Becker Shareholder and employment lawyer Jamie Dokovna invited Becker Managing Shareholder Gary C. Rosen and Coworks International Founder & President Shirley Arline to discuss the future of work and how business leaders can help protect both their people and profitability.
“We all need to recognize that we are embarking upon an experiment, and we have to be openminded about the prospect of adjustments in order to do what’s right for our people and our organization,” said Rosen. “It is critical that whatever any organization does [traditional, hybrid, or remote-only], it needs to be organic and natural to that organization.”
A recent survey¹ showed that 70% of all employees would like companies to normalize working from home and include it as part of a work-week that also featured a few traditional 9-5 in-the-office days. In the same survey, 20% of the responders said they’d be happy never coming back to the office.
“There are still quite a few apprehensions about how to manage [the return to work] in a way that allows employees to feel safe and comfortable,” said Arline. “There are genuine fears among employers and employees about potential exposure; the need for flexibility becomes overriding.”
While the EEOC has declared mandatory vaccination policies permissible (with exemptions being made for religious reasons or chronic health issues)², many companies are uncomfortable with that approach, opting instead to offer incentives – cash prizes for those who prove their vaccination, additional paid time off to get vaccinated – and to promote the value of vaccinations through education and anecdotal evidence provided by COVID-19 survivors or families of those who succumbed to the disease.
“We don’t want to lose good employees,” said Rosen. “We want to be responsive and flexible, but, as a business, we need to have a policy in place that people see implemented uniformly.” Arline continued, “Employers are trying to protect employees from contracting COVID and from other employees who do not want to be vaccinated.”
But safety of the workplace is not the only priority for employers.
“There is a lot of concern about the social and psychological adjustment of employees who have been out for quite a while,” said Arline. “We’ve had a significant increase in requests for EAPs to deal with the mental health impact of the pandemic.”
EAPs, employee assistance programs, are work-based intervention options designed to assist employees in resolving personal problems that may be adversely affecting the employee’s performance. EAPs traditionally assist workers with issues like alcohol or substance abuse; however, most now cover a broad range of issues such as child or elder care, relationship challenges, financial or legal problems, wellness matters and traumatic events like workplace violence. Programs are delivered at no cost to employees by stand-alone EAP vendors or providers who are part of comprehensive health insurance plans.³
“At the beginning of the pandemic, we had some employees who experienced acute stress, and I am very thankful that they reached out to our HR department,” said Rosen. “Sometimes small problems, if left unattended, can become larger issues and then migrate to crisis proportion. [Becker] does its best to provide an outlet for people to speak to a psychologist or mental health professional with no stigma attached.”
In addition to physical and mental health concerns, employers are also facing disruptions in recruiting and retention of employees.
“[Recruiting] has become a big challenge for employers,” said Arline. “Candidates are asking about the COVID protocols in place, setting very specific terms under which they will consider employment with an organization. I’ve gotten complaints from employers about the fact that they are losing control of the recruiting process and it’s very much in the hands of the candidates.”
The 2020 lockdown has also changed the rules of retention, since that year provided employees time to reflect on the direction of their career and review their professional goals. Many have made the decision to choose a completely different field – a risk that most would not have considered pre-pandemic – or leave the workforce altogether. Pundits have predicted a ‘turnover tsunami’ for the end of 2021, and all businesses are evaluating how to avoid losing quality employees by striking the right balance between a flexible workday and a guaranteed work product or service.⁴
“There isn’t a playbook for the pandemic,” said Dokovna. “Nobody is ahead of anyone else; we’re all figuring this out in real time.”
To watch the entire discussion, please click here.
2 EEOC Issues New Guidance for Mandatory and Voluntary COVID-19 Vaccine Programs, The National Law Review