Managers on the Virus Front Lines

Direct supervisors may be best positioned to decide who returns to work, and when

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie May 12, 2020
Managers on the Virus Front Lines

​As companies prepare to bring employees back to work following the coronavirus pandemic, it may be people managers who decide which of their reports return first.

Safety will be a top consideration as businesses start returning people to the worksite, and an employee's health, and that of his or her relatives at home, are two things that a worker's manager may be best able to ascertain.

"Front-line managers are likely going to be more in tune than a central HR department with which employees are high-risk or have at-risk family members, roommates or other risk factors," said Emma Jane Brudner, director of people operations at Lola.com, a Boston-based company offering corporate travel management tools. "I think any employee in a position where it's feasible to work remotely should be allowed to do so as long as they want, and the choice of when to return to the workplace should be entirely up to them."

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Staging a Comeback

At HR consultancy Mercer, Adam Pressman is a partner and business segment leader. The companies that Mercer hears from are largely planning a "staged" approach to returning employees to the worksite, he said—and that means there are many safety and procedural concerns that companies and their managers have to address.

Employers may limit the number of days each employee can be onsite, rotating workers throughout the week. Managers may be best positioned to make those scheduling decisions, he said, based on their knowledge of a worker's home life, kids' school pickup schedules and the like.

And managers, he said, shouldn't be too quick to dismiss the work-from-home model just because they're "looking forward to re-establishing a sense of normalcy."

"It is more of a challenge to maintain connection and a sense of community with a virtual workforce," he acknowledged. "That doesn't mean that employers [should] distrust the work-at-home model. Many employers have been using online collaboration tools and Zoom calls to maintain that connection and have had some success with that approach."

It will be important for managers to be evenhanded and judicious about who returns to work, when and for how many days, he said. It's also important for them to listen carefully to any concerns employees have about returning to the workplace.

For instance, if a worker has an underlying condition that could make him or her more susceptible to the virus, a manager should seriously consider allowing that worker to remain at home, although it's probably not unreasonable to ask for a doctor's verification of the condition. Likewise, a manager should take into consideration whether the employee lives with someone who has an underlying condition.

At the same time, some workers may be simply frightened about being in close quarters with work colleagues. That fear is particularly tricky territory, and each manager will have to decide—based on company policy and other considerations—if allowing such workers to remain at home is prudent.

Empathy and Compassion

While the coronavirus pandemic will eventually subside, Brudner noted, managers should approach their short-term, return-to-work decisions with empathy and compassion.

"Everyone will remember how their boss responded during this time," Brudner said. "If there was ever a time to show employees empathy and give them the benefit of the doubt, that time is now. How do you want employees to look back at this time? Unsupportive workplaces won't just lose their current employees' trust but will also likely do damage to their employer brand and reputation among prospective employees when the economy bounces back."

Part of a manager's decision on who returns to work must be based on business needs—that is, on who is essential to have onsite, said Anne Scanlon, chief people officer at Boston-based SmartBear, which provides software development tools. 

"Managers will play an important role in deciding the appropriate team members to bring back into the office amid various degrees of the need to maintain social distancing," she said. "I believe the fairest way to decide who to choose to bring back is based on business need. Communication will be critical during this period as managers will need to talk to all of their employees to understand their concerns and address them as best as they possibly can."  

Finally, managers will no doubt need to collaborate with their companies' legal counsel to ensure that the company isn't exposed to lawsuits by bringing back workers who might get sick.

First, it's important to follow guidance from public leaders and health experts for when it is safe and advisable to return to the workplace, said Robert Hicks, group HR director for Reward Gateway, an employee engagement consultancy based in Boston.

And managers should be careful about "the desire to rush back to work," he said.

"I feel that reflects the [desire to] return to how it was before—a good economy, no COVID-19, low unemployment," he said. "It also could reflect perceived thinking that returning will help with business continuity."

Several local law firms have produced webinars and other guidance on how managers and their companies can protect themselves when deciding who should return to work, said William Andrews, associate professor of management at Stetson University.

"This can be legally fraught," he acknowledged. "At a minimum, the business should have an employee awareness program, ensure that they have reasonable personal protective equipment, and have some process for identifying and isolating employees who show symptoms." 

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