COVID-19: Prepare Now for a Possible Re-Emergence

By Eric Butterman May 28, 2020
sanitizer, mask, keyboard, calculator

​As some workplaces reopen and others make plans to do so, we may start seeing business as usual. However, if the coronavirus re-emerges over the summer or fall due to a decrease in social distancing and other factors, employers will need to be prepared for a return to remote work and other pandemic-induced workplace changes.

Smart HR professionals are making plans now—just in case—by taking the lessons they've learned in recent months and creating new policies and procedures so they're ready, if necessary.

For example, at the beginning of the year, many companies didn't allow employees to work from home, whether from fear that productivity would drop, technology concerns or other issues. Yet several new studies have found that remote workers have performed at the same or higher levels during the pandemic than they did when at work, and technology has held up just fine.  

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

"It took a little while here, but the pandemic has clearly proven what people can do from home," said Maria Minor, an assistant professor in the MBA program at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H. "Let's not make remote work as a last option but something that can be considered as a great way to get results. People have earned this trust now—don't forget it."

Autonomy is a key component of remote work, and increased autonomy tends to build employee engagement, said Shane Metcalf, chief culture officer at San Francisco-based performance management solution provider 15Five. "Employees need to have that flexibility and permission to work anywhere," he said. "When we give people that choice, it increases our autonomy as employees. And autonomy is one of the leading indicators of whether people will have intrinsic motivation to do their jobs."

Key Lessons for the Next Possible Office Shutdown

Trust your employees who are working remotely.

Regularly allow people to telecommute, at least occasionally, to provide greater flexibility and confirm that the company's technology can support it.

Make sure virtual-meeting platforms are secure.

Prepare for virtual hiring and onboarding.

Communicate an understanding for working parents' needs.

From a technology standpoint, Minor said, policies that allow all employees to at least occasionally work from home will help company information technology (IT) departments, since they can plan now to support everyone, not just those who work in a physical space but may suddenly need remote access.

"This time many people went home and found their technology wasn't working," Minor said. "We know that made things much more difficult. An occasional day at home doesn't just add flexibility, but think of it as a drill in case the pandemic forces everyone to go remote again."

Technology preparation also means creating a higher level of security through employee training, as well as developing new IT processes. "You have to set up so you have access into different servers and a protocol so scammers or hackers can't get in there," said Minor, who adds that holding virtual meetings on different platforms like Zoom and Webex provides flexibility, but also creates susceptibility to hacking. "There must be a stronger password [protocol] worked out so everyone knows the steps."

Talent Acquisition Adjustments

Another lesson learned in recent months is that remote hiring and onboarding requires different skill sets from HR and hiring managers.

"When COVID-19 got started, we had close to 175 or so people that were still starting with us," said Diane Adams, chief culture and talent officer for New York City-based software company Sprinklr and a former HR vice president at Cisco Systems. She said the organization's latest virtual onboarding program had about 50 people in it, and the program schedule was revised to two sessions a day to make things easier for new hires in different time zones. The result? Sprinklr found that virtual onboarding led to more in-depth conversations with new hires than its typical onboarding program, Adams said.

Providing psychological safety is another lesson many HR professionals have learned during this crisis. Giving working parents greater flexibility to pause when their child needs a moment, or even more than a moment, is important, 15Five's Metcalf said. Many working parents have been afraid to ask for understanding, believing it will be seen as a weakness, he explained.

"It comes down to building psychological safety … It's much easier to talk about it than to build it," Metcalf said. To instill a sense of psychological safety in their employees, leaders must learn to show that they don't have all the answers and have their own struggles with fear and uncertainty.

"It really comes down to letting people in the company know it's OK to not be perfect and that it's OK to have the stress and talk about these things," he said. "That's one of the big problems of why so many people are disengaged and why company culture has so much room to improve. It's that people don't feel like they can be their authentic selves and don't feel they can share what's really wrong or what they're struggling with because they'll be penalized for telling the truth. We need to break that."

A New Layer of Humanity

Providing a sense of freedom to allow employees to focus on children when they need to and focus on work at atypical working hours if necessary is a solution at many companies, said Emily Tschimperle, HR director for the Minneapolis office of Marsh & McLennan Agency, an insurance brokerage. She added that letting parents know they have help rather than making them feel they're at a disadvantage is important.

"Now that you sometimes see dogs or children in Zoom meetings, it's brought a new layer of humanity and vulnerability to the day-to-day work life," Tschimperle said. "I think at the end of this there will be stronger relationships in ways based on that, because now everyone has seen everyone else's vulnerabilities and what they're dealing with."

Eric Butterman is a freelance writer based in McKinney, Texas.



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