By Patrick Hoff
After several months of employees being distanced from their typical nine-to-five domain, workplaces are beginning to reopen, potentially setting up a raft of new challenges for employers.
Pat Eardley, founder of human resources consulting company ShiftHR, said returning to the workplace will look different for each industry and each company, but one of the first steps for any business should be determining who needs to come in to work initially to set up reintegration.
Companies should also take a look at how the workspace is configured, Eardley said, and potentially reorient the space so people are not as close together as they used to be.
Overall, Eardley said employers need to be sensitive about how they approach COVID-19. Temperature checks and questions about specific symptoms are OK, she said, but employers need to be specific in order to avoid violating privacy laws.
“Asking a question like, ‘Hey, are you sick? What’s going on?’ ... is walking a fine line of finding out information that you really shouldn’t,” Eardley said.
It’s better, she said, to ask about symptoms that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified with COVID-19, such as fever, shortness of breath, sore throat and cough.
Additionally, she said, if a company is requiring employees to wear personal protective equipment such as face masks, it needs to supply the equipment or reimburse the employees.
If face masks are optional, Eardley said it’s still a good idea to put in place some kind of policy about what is and isn’t acceptable.
“If you don’t want somebody coming in with a face mask that has Luke Skywalker on it, then you probably should create a policy,” she said.
Teresa Vaughn said her company, Mount Pleasant-based Johnson & Johnson Insurance, is asking employees to return to their offices June 1 if they’re comfortable but is allowing employees to remain working from home if they feel that they need to for any reason.
In addition to being vice president of human resources at Johnson & Johnson, Vaughn is the state director of the S.C. Society for Human Resources Management.
Most important, Vaughn said, companies need to be flexible and communicate clearly with employees.
“Make them feel comfortable with what’s going on and communicate,” she said.
Jean Meeks-Koch, founder and CEO of Positively People, said employers need to be prepared for a “traumatized workforce,” especially if people have been laid off while the company has been working from home.
Typically when a company lays people off, other employees are able to say goodbye, but with everyone working from home, Meeks-Koch said that opportunity was taken away.
Additionally, she said, employees may feel guilty that they’re still employed while others lost their jobs.
“Even though they’re coming back to work, there will be that grieving process, and so that’s going to impact performance,” Meeks-Koch said. “They’re not going to come back to work and be the same people they were when they left work. There will be this grieving process that will occur, and being able to navigate that in a healthy way is going to be critical.”
She added that employers also need to be ready to support those who have gotten used to the flexibility and freedom of working from home.
“We’ve been under this restraint, for many, many employers, for two, 2 1/2 months. Some even three months,” Meeks-Koch said. “So ... they won’t come back and be the same people. The productivity won’t be there. So there’s going to be a reintegration period of time that will happen.”