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JUNE 1 FOCUS: Human Resources

A construction worker uses a circular saw on concrete on a work site. A cityscape is behind the worker, and a blue sky with white clouds.
Returning to the workplace will be different for every industry, but human resources professionals say every company should keep the needs of employees in mind. (Photo/File)
Return to the workplace may require flexibility
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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.

Emotional support

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.”

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Meeks-Koch said employees may be feeling emotions similar to those felt while dealing with death and the dying process, such as a dismantling of the world as they know it, an emotional emptiness and disorientation.

“What leaders need to do is really give them that new dawn and let them hold onto something that they can believe in,” Meeks-Koch said. “And if leaders can’t do that, they’re not going to reignite, re-energize the workforce.”

Her concern, Meeks-Koch said, is that employers aren’t thinking about how the past several months have affected the mental health of their employees.

“When you look at a company and their human resource department, unless they’re a huge, huge company, they’re not going to have people on the behavioral side of the workforce, and they’re going to be ill-prepared for this,” she said. “And they’re not going to have the trainings done for their managers and their leaders.”

The most important thing employers can do is create a safe space to listen to employees and support their mental health, Meeks-Koch said, making sure to ask people how they’re doing each day.

“It provides a space for restoration of the human element,” she said.

Doing this, she said, will allow employees to open up about their concerns and goals more easily and help employees come back together as a team.

“It’s also the ability to get them in a very compassionate way to start looking at the present and the future,” Meeks-Koch said. “But also giving them time that we call compartmentalizing. ... So instead of just saying ‘Hey, we’re over, we’re back to work now, OK. We’re not going to talk about this anymore,’ we have to provide a space to talk about it and how people are feeling as they’re working through it.”

Eardley said employers may want to consider implementing various types of employee recognition in order to start rebuilding camaraderie.

It can be as simple as a thank-you note for a job well done, she said, but it will go a long way.

“I think being able to kind of have that ‘Go team, one team’ spirit and doing different things to say thank you to staff, because I know there’s a lot of people who have been out of work for a while,” she said.

“But there’s also been a lot of people who have been working from home or are considered essential personnel and never left the workplace.”

Reach staff writer Patrick Hoff at 843-849-3144 or @PatHoffCRBJ on Twitter.

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