As the coronavirus crisis enters its sixth month in the United States, HR professionals face new and complex workforce challenges. When should we ask employees to return to the workplace? How should businesses respond to the needs of working parents as schools reopen—or remain closed?  

To advise the HR community as it continues to adapt, we recently put together a timely #TalkHR webinar: Back to the workplace—What’s forever changed, and how to prepare for the transition.

Four expert panelists—Tracie Sponenberg, Chief People Officer at The Granite Group, employment attorney Kate Bischoff, HR leader and #HRSocialHour Podcast host Jon Thurmond, and outplacement veteran Caroline Vernon—joined our live chat and Q&A to tackle questions from the audience for helping teams manage back-to-work and back-to-school concerns.

Below is a condensed version of the Q&A, edited for clarity. Some of the questions answered include:

  • Is your organization returning to the workplace or planning to go back in the near future?
  • How has your company adjusted to the new way of work?
  • What is the right time to return to the workplace, and who should return?
  • How would you advise HR professionals on managing questions and conflicting opinions about what employees want?
  • How are you navigating back to school guidelines?
  • What are some best practices to help working parents find balance?
  • What options are being considered for those in health care who may need to manage their young children for online and virtual school?

Is your organization returning to the workplace or planning to go back in the near future? How has your company adjusted to the new way of work?

Jon: We’ve gotten a lot more comfortable. My organization—we were considered essential, and so about 80% of my workforce is in the field. Other than implementing additional safety standards, masks, and what have you, they’re just chugging along. There’s been no real change there.

It has been interesting to see the shift in our office staff and our professional staff, readjusting the production and hours and what have you. We’re going to continue to allow those people to work from home as much as possible, where they can.

What is the right time to return to the workplace, and who should return?

Tracie: I think [the right time to return] maybe never for some companies. I think you first ask, do you need everyone in the office? Maybe the answer is yes, maybe the answer is no. There are a lot of companies that just assume that they need everybody back, but that may not be the right choice. We’ve said to our people, for those people who are working from home, “If you want to continue to do so, do so.” It’s worked great.

But we [also] have to recognize that some people don’t want to [work from home], or can’t. They have different situations where it’s not as fun or as easy for them. So they want to be in the office, and we wanted to accommodate that also.

For some companies, they have to really ask their people. Where’s the comfort level? Who’s needed [in the workplace]? Are they needed?

Kate: We’ve done this analysis of what is necessary and what is convenient. And we’ve drawn the line between that necessary versus convenient. For management, it’s always been much more convenient to have your people around you so you can just stop by their cube, ask them a question there when they’re not going to be interrupted by kids or pets or the gas guy. But that’s just a convenience factor. That’s not an absolute necessity.

This has become a great big wake up call for a lot of managers to say, “Oh my gosh, butt-in-seat time, or face time, is not the best way for me to manage my folks at this point in time.” We’ve seen this dramatic change, shifts in management.

I’m a big fan of the Pivot podcast with Kara Swisher and professor Scott Galloway. Scott Galloway has this position that COVID-19 isn’t a changing agent. It’s an accelerant. We were already going down this road in a lot of ways, and this has just rapidly accelerated that kind of change.

Tracie: You can embrace that too. My team meets every single day via Zoom. Sometimes it’s just, “How’s everybody doing? You good? Any questions?” And then other times it’s really in-depth planning. Some of the team has said, “thank god we’re doing this, because I felt so disconnected to people. [When we were in the office,] we didn’t meet every day—not even close. So you can have some really wonderful things come out of something that may have been forced upon you.

Jon: There are so many variables. Obviously, when you are assessing, you want to look and say, is it a skill issue or is it a connectivity issue? We had someone that lived very, very remotely, and we needed to find them a device to help them get a signal from wifi because they just didn’t have any kind of connectivity. I think you have to work through those things.

You have to consider the safety component as well. Every state has different policies. Do you have to install shields, and do you have an appropriate cleansing for spaces and extra masks and all the PPE in place? You better make sure you have all that stuff first before you ever start considering return to work because if it’s not a safe environment to begin with, that’s going to cause a lot of red flags and a lot of heartburn for people. You’ve got people with preexisting conditions or maybe family members with preexisting conditions. Then you’ve got fear at the end of the day.

We’re fighting an invisible enemy here. We can see it under a microscope, but we can’t see it jump from person to person. At some level, there’s a fear there, and you have to acknowledge it. Tracie was talking about showing empathy, and I think people are demonstrating a lot more empathy because none of us have ever planned for anything like this. We’re all learning. We’re all living it together.

You want to make sure that from an infrastructure standpoint, you have that first. Do you understand what the rules and regulations are? Are you able to comply with that before you ever really start to assess bringing staff back? You need to be able to set some level of expectation and be able very clear about why it is safe to come back to work.

How would you advise HR professionals on managing questions and conflicting opinions about what employees want?

Kate: There is a difference between what guidance says and what you should be doing. Note that the CDC, OSHA—those folks have inherent conflicts internally within their organization as to what they should say. So if you read that what their guidance is, and you pay attention to where the science is, you can say, “Okay, the CDC isn’t saying we have to require masks, but my governor is requiring masks because he sees this science. So we’re going to do more than what the CDC says. We’re going to require masks. We’re going to put the flexiglass up in front of every cashier at this grocery store. We’re going to put the plexiglass up whenever there’s going to be public coming into the place. And we’re going to separate them. Not because we don’t want to connect with the public, but we want to keep them and us safe.”

Recognize that that is the floor. That is the minimum of what you’re required to do. You won’t get in trouble if you just do the minimum, but to manage the anxiety and the fear of your people and to do what’s best for them, you go above that. So please go above that.

Tracie: And get ahead of it too. Jon and I—we’re working in industries where we were working [on site] all along. So we had our masks before the recommendation came down from the CDC, because we could see that coming, and people were asking for them. We outfitted everybody. That’s really critical.

How are you navigating back to school guidelines? Have the parents among your staff been affected by children staying home and learning from home?

Tracie: We’re still waiting. We’re in 45 locations, so we have hundreds of different cities and towns that are all deciding their own. We’ll approach it just like we’re approaching anything else—personally and individually—and do the right thing and accommodate our people and their needs.

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For those who can work from home, that’s easy and super hard at the same time, because you have kids who are distance learning, and then you have parents at home. But we’re going to look to our people and figure out what they need and then figure it out from there. I expect,we’ll start getting lots of questions.

Jon: We’re handling it very similarly: multiple locations, multiple states, all over the place. I have the added wrinkle, personally, that my wife’s a teacher. But we obviously worked through the spring. The same people that have students now, most of them had students in the spring. We had to figure those things out.

I think we continued to try to work with people as best we can and acknowledge that we don’t know. [Schools] have got to start making some hard and fast decisions so that parents can make some kind of plans. Then companies like ours can also figure out how are we going to help support our employees. But it’s still that day by day, just like at the beginning, trying to figure out how we’re going to assess the success.

Kate: I have so many fears about the stress that is going back to school. Studies show that in the spring, the brunt of the labor has fallen to women, which meant that women were opting out of the workplace at a significantly higher rate, which is taking decades of advancement out of our realm of possibility. The other fear on top of it is when you say to someone you can’t be working from home when your kids are at home, like some universities have done. That means that people aren’t going to be in the workplace and you’re going to be discriminating against them based upon their familial status, which is a protected class in several states. But it also has a gender plus aspect, which might be challenged under federal law.

We’re going to need to be as flexible as we were in March, April, and May. We’re going to have to figure out, how this is going to work for you. We’re going to allow you to take the emergency FMLA, which may be in place. There are still some employers under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. And we’re going to have to figure out how, as a manager, I can make sure that I’m putting in goals and objectives for you that you can meet and be successful without needing you to make that 10 o’clock, meeting. Because at that 10 o’clock, you are feeding a child or they have a lecture that they need to attend—and if they attend a lecture and you attend the meeting, we don’t have wifi enough to cover all of those things.

I think we’re getting to a point where, as employers, we understand that people have to be people first, and that means that they have to have families first, which is great. That flexibility, that bending over backwards that Jon mentioned earlier, is what we’re really going to have to focus on.

What are some best practices to help working parents find that balance?

Tracie: I think it’s really hard to slap a best practice on this one, because we’ve never seen a pandemic in our lifetime. We’re figuring this stuff out as we go. If you have the kind of culture that supports your people, you listen to your people, you talk to your people, you figure out what they need. That may not be the same for every person.

Kate: The hard problem of putting this into a best practice is that everyone is so different. I might have an elderly parent living with me. That’s going to require different challenges than having kids living with me. And that’s going to require different challenges of living in a studio apartment. So the individualism is going to need to come down to, how is a manager going to interact with that particular employee? And how is that team going to work with that particular employee on our individual needs?

If we were successful in March, April, May, I have confidence that we might be able to do that again. But recognize it’s going to be hard. While I love it when people go, “Can we just push this into a policy and make this all uniform,” this is just not one of those things. It’s just like the law. The law might seem to be black and white, but people are involved and that makes it gray.

Jon: If you simply tell employees, go figure it out, they’re not going to hang around. How you treat your folks during this time through these challenges—if you treat them well, they will remember. If you don’t, they will remember that even more. I’m not saying you can solve all things for everybody. We cannot be everybody’s parent, preacher, doctor, everything. I fully acknowledged it and understand it, but you at least better be empathetic to it and say, “I hear you. I understand.” Many of us understand. We are similarly situated. What are we doing to at least acknowledge the pain? Because it is pain. It’s legitimate concern. How do we help address it? Because if we simply just say, go deal with it, they’re going to remember that, too.

What options are being considered for those in health care, such as nursing staff, who may need to manage their young children for online and virtual school?

Kate: It’s hard to be in healthcare right now. We’ve heard stories of the ER nurses who are quarantined from their families for fear of spreading COVID to their kids who may be immunocompromised. So it’s really hard. Take advantage of any kind of leaves that might be available to those particular employees. Then, also see, can we split shifts? Can we change how we schedule folks to make it easier for them to manage both, or move to part time, trying to be as flexible as we possibly can to make sure that their needs are being backed both at home and at the office? But it is going to be hard.

Watch the full webinar.

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