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Managing the Workplace in the Age of COVID-19

March 23, 2020 HR

As we continue to navigate the changing landscape of COVID-19, Fahrenheit wanted to provide some guidance on what we all can do to ensure the culture in our organizations is not largely impacted by actions taken today. This guidance is for informational purposes and should not replace guidance from legal counsel.

1) What things should we consider when developing our strategy to respond to the COVID 19 emergency?

In times of crisis, an organization should always rely on its stated values and culture when deciding how to respond to external factors. Your culture will certainly be tested as you work to balance the demands of legislative requirements and the needs of your employees and the organization. The approach you take under these circumstances will define you more than anything you may have done in the past.

If your values and culture really do define your company, then they should also lead your planning and actions. Remember, try to avoid making long-term decisions for short-term problems.

2) How actively should I attempt to monitor the health status of my employees?

Begin with making sure that your employees are educated on the basic steps that have been established to combat the spread of COVID- 19. General information regarding personal health habits is readily available and it would not hurt to publish your own version of this guidance.

Government agencies such as the EEOC and the Department of Health and Human Services have issued guidance that suggest employers have a great deal of latitude when monitoring current employee health. Employers have a well-documented responsibility to ensure the safety of their employees, and this health crisis may demand that employers become more active in questioning employees about their current health condition.

It is also important to balance this responsibility with respect for the privacy of the employees. Therefore, inquiries should be limited to instances when employees are exhibiting physical traits that might lead a non-medical person to question the individual’s health. Employers retain the right to ask employees to leave the workplace if they feel the individual poses a threat to others in the workplace.

Again, lean on your culture and your relationships with employees to help guide you on how to manage the removal of employees.

3) How should an employer manage its attendance policies in light of the fact that many employees may be missing time due to COVID-19?

It may be prudent that employers implement a temporary relaxing of some of its attendance policies so that a proper balance is achieved, and your employees are assured that you understand the challenges they are facing.

Depending on the structure of your attendance policies, provisions such as the requirement that employees produce a medical excuse when they miss time, may need to be suspended or relaxed. Medical resources are going to be stretched to their limits and these medical excuses may be hard to obtain. If portions of any of your policies are suspended during the crisis, it is important to communicate this to your employees and set a sunset date when the policy will return to normal. In most cases, employees will view this decision as positive and that their employer is willing to work with them to manage their attendance.

4) How aggressive should I be in questioning employees regarding their movements and who they may have come in contact with?

The answer to this has more to do with how you think your employees would respond to such inquiries as it is a legal question. It is recommended that employers not subject their employees to interrogations about their personal movements, or that of their family members. The trust you have created with your employees should not be sacrificed in order to gain information that may or may not have an impact on the workplace. Instead, rely on your culture to encourage employees to make decisions regarding their personal health, based on how it might impact their co-workers.

No one wants to be responsible for someone else getting sick, so assume that your employees will do the right thing. Encourage them to do so, by setting the tone for respectful treatment during even the most urgent circumstances.

5) How do I control the spread of rumors within the workplace?

Fear and concern are real, and understandable reactions by employees who do not have control of their situation. The best way to control unnecessary rumors is to implement a consistent and ongoing communication strategy within the organization. Facts beat fear every time! It will take some effort to plan and deliver, however the reassurance you provide and the sense of control you exhibit will be invaluable to the mental health and sense of security of your employees.

6) Should I consider limiting the flow of visitors into the office or workplace?

In order to protect your employees, it is probably a good idea to restrict as much external interaction as is possible. Your suppliers, vendors and guests probably have already implemented some of the same restrictions, therefore there is little chance of damaging critical business relationships. If some interaction with the public is unavoidable, try to limit the number of employees who are made available.

7) What steps can I take to establish a sense of normalcy to the workplace?

Where possible, continue to do the things that you have always done to build teamwork and comradery. This may include very small things, like jeans on Fridays, or early release at the end of the work week. It is important that leadership remain visible and available to employees. While it is important to provide the necessary “space” to employees to protect their health, normal interactions within the workplace remain an important aspect of the work experience.

8) Should I consider a reduction in hours or a temporary business closing, and if I do, how should this step be handled?

Depending on the nature of your business, it may become necessary at some point to reduce the hours of operation or totally shut down operations. This decision will be difficult, however it should be based on business realities and considered carefully. If the decision is made, it is recommended that – where possible – employees be notified in person.

Be prepared to answer the questions that you feel are most likely to be asked. The more specific information that you can share the better. Take the extra steps to help your employees with things like applying for unemployment insurance coverage. Continue to demonstrate that they are important to you and you care for them.

Even while employees are away from the workplace, it will be important to maintain regular, and open communications. At some point this crisis will pass, and you will want to be able to retain and return your employees to work, so planning these communications in detail will be important.

9) What other things should I be prepared for, or should be thinking about?

The expansion of the coverages provided under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) will prove challenging, especially to those employers who would not otherwise be subject to this law (the law previously pertained to employers with 50 or more employees).

The temporary changes to the FMLA will increase the number of cases that will qualify for the protections provided under this law. Be prepared to process these requests in the manner that complies with both the revised law and your internal processes. If your company has not been subject to the FMLA in the past, it will be important to partner with a resource that can help you develop a process that can be used to manage requests.

The other aspect that will take some careful management is your workforce planning. Absences will have an impact on your ability to deliver the products or services of your company, and flexible actions to cover absences will be critical. Your approach might entail employees crossing over into areas that are not their normal responsibilities. That this opportunity to cross train your employees and develop an even greater sense of teamwork.

The passage of the Family First Coronavirus Response Act is a very recent development and it is important to continue to monitor new developments as they become available. If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to contact us at HumanCapital@fahrenheitadvisors.com.

About the Author
Nathan Duet is an expert in building sustainable human resources functions within rapidly growing organizations and making strategic adjustments to policies and practices to accommodate an organization’s strategy and development. With nearly 40 years of experience, Nathan collaborates with clients to build a balanced approach to human resources management that facilitates the growth of team members while achieving, and exceeding, organizational objectives. He is skilled in all areas of human resources management including employee relations, compensation, benefits, communications, performance management, and compliance with state and federal labor laws. nduet@fahrenheitadvisors.com 

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