With more people getting vaccinated against COVID-19, businesses are considering if it’s time to bring workers back to the office. Some may be skittish as the rate of infection is also on the rise in NH and other states. And many workers want to remain remote even after the pandemic is no longer a threat.
A recent survey of 1,000 workers across the U.S. by Robert Half, a national staffing and recruiting firm with offices in Manchester, Nashua and Portsmouth, shows only 25% want to work fully in the office while 26% want to be fully remote and 49% prefer a hybrid approach, working remote and in the office. The survey found one in three professionals currently working from home would look for a new job if required to return to the office.
As such, determining when and how to bring back a remote workforce, deciding who must come back and managing the potential cultural and health concerns is a bit like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle that must be approached from many angles.
The first logical question is whether the organization is better with workers onsite, says Amy Cann, managing partner at HR-ROI, an HR consulting and training firm in Portsmouth. Has there been a dip in productivity, quality or customer satisfaction while being remote? Cann says it is appropriate to ask workers what they prefer and conduct a survey, but make it clear that the company is assessing options and needs to do what is best to support the organization’s needs.
Among those undergoing such an evaluation is one of the state’s largest employers, Southern NH University. “Like so many businesses, we were put into this one-year test asking, ‘What does remote work look like?’ We have 11,000 employees; many are adjunct professors who were already remote. We had about 3,000 who came into work every day, and overnight last year, they all went remote,” says Danielle Stanton, SNHU’s executive vice president of human resources.
She says in summer 2020, the university took a step back to evaluate its options. “We were not seeing a decrease in productivity, and we were seeing an increase in engagement,” Stanton says. SNHU researched what other companies were doing and launched a remote work survey. “It was a hot topic. People really wanted to share with us,” she says. “We had a 93% response rate, and 65% said they wanted to continue to work fully remote post-COVID. If they couldn’t be fully remote, they at least wanted a hybrid. They didn’t really want to come back into the office. They were feeling productive. It gave them greater work-life balance.”
While trying to figure out the best approach, some companies are taking advantage of the slower summer season to extend remote work while testing the waters of workers’ preferences for the fall. Philip Lapp, managing partner at Gallagher, Flynn & Company, says the CPA firm has about 90 people between two offices in Lebanon, NH and Burlington, VT. “About two-thirds of our people are remote, and we have broached getting back a little bit. I suspect due to our workflow, we will be pretty flexible over the summer and not pull people back sooner than they are comfortable,” he says. “We have gotten a lot of feedback from people concerned that if there was a requirement to come back, they might not feel ready yet.”
However, Lapp says, from an efficiency standpoint, the virtual workplace environment is clearly not as efficient in some cases.
He found experienced CPAs were able to effectively work remotely and be independent while new staff required more mentoring, which is easier to accomplish in person.
“We’ll attack it by levels,” says Lapp. “For us there is a big difference between the staff right out of college and people who have been in the industry for many years. It is very difficult to get people up to speed in a virtual work environment. Some will spend more time in the office, but we may be able to offer more flexibility to those with more seniority.”
Vaccinations and accommodations
Employers are not generally allowed to ask health-related questions under normal circumstances. But as Cann of HR-ROI explains, the pandemic is anything but normal, and employers are allowed to ask employees if they have had a COVID-19 vaccine or tested negative. “You can ask about the vaccine, but if they say no, they haven’t had it, you are not allowed to inquire further unless it is mandatory,” she says.
In cases where a vaccine is legally mandated, such as health care facilities, employees can still opt out for health reasons under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or for religious reasons (under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act). For ADA exemptions, an employer can ask for documentation from a doctor.
“With religious choice, you cannot require documentation as long as it is a ‘sincerely held religious belief,’ but employers need to be very careful about questioning unless they have a tangible reason to doubt the person,” says Cann.
However, if someone doesn’t want the vaccine for purely personal reasons, that is their choice but the employer does not have to accommodate them, says Cann.
Lapp, of Gallagher, Flynn & Company, says they are still trying to work through the issue of vaccinations. While they might prefer those working onsite to be vaccinated, it is possible a client may require it, which could affect the ability of non-vaccinated staff to participate in an audit at the client site.
COVID protocols, such as masking and social distancing, must still be in place for safety and liability for the foreseeable future, says Cann. For some businesses, a hybrid model for returning to work is attractive as it allows for more social distancing in the workplace. “Would a hybrid model work with two onsite days, the rest remote? Can you stagger onsite days so not everyone is there at once? Hybrid models can make the space and separation easier,” she says.
As for deciding whether or not to bring people back to the office, making assumptions can be dangerous, says Cann. She says clients have asked if a worker is age 65, should they just not bring them back. “You can’t make any assumptions based on factors such as pregnancy or age. Let them tell you. If you know about something, you can start the conversation but don’t make any assumptions,” Cann says.
There is also the possibility that remote work during the pandemic has established a precedent, which Cann says could be a real problem for employers. “The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission administers the ADA enforcement and will ask employers what has changed. Why can’t they still work at home now?”
Documentation is important when making personnel decisions to safeguard against accusations of retaliation, says Cann. “If you make an accommodation grudgingly and then retaliate in some form – pass someone over for promotion or lay them off – this is far worse than an ADA claim. Retaliation was the highest discrimination claim in the country last year.”
If an employer and employee are at an impasse over returning to work and the job requires them to be physically present, employers can consider transferring them to a job that is open that they are qualified to do and that allows them to be remote.
However, other accommodations may be available. Cann recommends using the Job Accommodation Network (AskJan.org) for COVID-19 resources and information on accommodating disabilities.” You want to provide economic benefit, and that is why these ADA protections exist,” says Cann. “Everyone deserves an opportunity to earn a living.”
Regardless of what a company decides, it won’t be business as usual. “It is never going to be like it was,” says Stanton. “We are not going to have all of our employees coming back into the office, and it is really a culture shift because we must look at all our programs and make sure we can support our workforce in this way.”
Mental health and engagement
Everyone is experiencing the pandemic differently, says Cann.
“We have to remember our own experience is not the same as others. Be mindful and have empathy but don’t be apologetic for having to bring people back to run your business or nonprofit,” she says.
If someone is struggling, it may be that a more flexible schedule will help. If social interaction is causing stress, noise-canceling headphones or a quieter section of the office may help. An employee assistance program (EAP) is a great option, says Cann.
“Imagine having to transition back to the workplace having lost one or more family members,” she says. “You want to keep good workers and show them you care. EAP is a smart investment. But if you can’t afford it, 211.org will direct people to community resources with free or a sliding-scale charge for services.”
Jennifer Hayes, HR practice leader at Clark & Lavey Benefits Solutions in Merrimack, says the shift to remote work combined with pandemic stress present a challenge to managers.
“Particularly in New England, coming out of a long winter and a year of remote work, the isolation and (resulting) mental health present bigger questions. ‘My employees aren’t next to me anymore. How do I know if they are healthy? What do I need to offer them?’ So, it involves a very different management style,” she says.
Lapp says he believes the strain on mental health will remain an important challenge. “I think about it from the tax season aspect. You cannot wind up in a month and wind back down in a month. Similarly, winding down from the effects of the pandemic could take a year or more. It may be a fairly long down-ramp for people to be comfortable and deal with the mental health issues that have arisen in the past year,” he says.
Among the challenges identified through the SNHU survey of its employees are people not feeling connected to their peers and missing those informal interactions that would happen walking down the hallway. Sometimes collaboration is challenging in a remote capacity.
“What we’ve done in the past won’t work in the future; we learned a lot from our remote employees. When there were team meetings, people (dialing in) felt that they were not heard,” says Stanton. “How do we create a space where everyone can have a voice and be heard?”
Models for a post-COVID world
Drawing on the feedback from the survey, SNHU created a new program it is rolling out in July called Synergy, which creates different place-based options: anyplace, dual place (a hybrid) and in place for those who must be on campus every day.
Employees may have a flex or set schedule. Many positions do not have to happen within set hours. Stanton says most employees were already set to work remote through the end of June, but students will be back on campus this fall.
“How you determine where you land as an employee is based on a conversation,” says Stanton. “We are training our leaders to have this conversation with their employees. We are really empowering them to follow a road map we have created to determine the right place.”
The roadmap looks at the following: Why does the job exist? Who does it support? Is it supporting students on campus? Can it be done virtually? Do they need regular collaboration? Do they have a set schedule when they must be available for students? What does the employee prefer?
Stanton says SNHU even has some employees with “any place” jobs who want to come back to campus and have a connection to coworkers.
“Listening to employees, getting feedback, adapting and changing, engagement is really important to us,” she says. “I’d like to say we have it all figured out, but I don’t think we do. Through the Synergy program, I expect we will learn a lot and continue to iterate and change.”
Hayes says she expects many larger companies will have options. “I think we will see a lot of hybrid,” says Hayes. “For the larger companies tied to a long-term lease, to stay competitive, they are going to create an environment with more collaboration space and where you’ll see teams coming in on alternating days allowing people to still work from home and have the benefit of both worlds.”
She says smaller companies may favor more remote work because it has such a big effect on the bottom line, and they are usually in shorter-term leases. Now businesses are figuring out how to interview and onboard remotely, how to have an engaged workforce and make sure employees have career goals.
Paul Clark, CEO of Clark & Lavey Benefits Solutions, says there is the potential for employee benefits to include home office costs. “Employees may be looking for a higher salary since a company no longer has to pay for their space. The return for employers is not immediate though.”
He also says employers need to be prepared for a potential productivity cliff. “Some people might be working harder as a result of ‘work from home guilt,’ a feeling they are lucky to get that perk. Right now, productivity is up,” says Clark. “A year from now will it stay the same? As the economy reopens, post-vaccination, and people feel comfortable going out, there will be more forces pulling at their focus.”
As a direct result of the pandemic, Gallagher, Flynn & Company hired out-of-state remote workers. “It’s something we would never have done before,” says Lapp. “Communication is the key, and just like in person, cultural fit is very important. Going forward, not in a pandemic, we will definitely bring people in for a week at the front end of a remote hire. In this case, these are folks we have never met in person, and that is really tough from a relationship standpoint.”
Shifts in health benefits
Employees may not have to take so much time off for doctor’s visits anymore as another potentially permanent shift due to the pandemic is the increased use of telemedicine. “If one can try to find a positive in a pandemic, it is that the physician community realized if they didn’t get onboard with telemedicine, patients would go elsewhere,” says Paul Clark, CEO of Clark & Lavey Benefits Solutions in Merrimack. “We have seen a 50% spike in telehealth visits across the board, large and small companies.”
Clark says employers with self-funded health insurance plans are not feeling the sticker shock as employers with premium carriers. “We do a lot of self-funded medical plans, and our highest increase for January renewals was 6%. We are seeing the premium carriers charging 20% to 30% as they try to recoup profits. A self-funded plan doesn’t need to recoup anything.”
He says the predicted tidal wave of medical costs from delayed elective procedures and deferred care has not shown up even as economies and practices reopened, although some carriers are charging a premium in anticipation of that bubble, he adds.
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