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Returning to the Workplace: The Lingering Effects of COVID-19

With state governments beginning to slowly loosen restrictions and companies beginning to plan for a return to business, one reality has begun to take root – the COVID-19 pandemic will have many lingering effects. One question that remains unanswered is how dramatic these effects will be in the long term. Most agree that the impact will not only affect individual personal behavior, but it will also have a lasting influence on how businesses manage and execute the essential functions of their organization. Understandably, the initial priority for businesses is how to reopen or resume business in the safest and most effective way possible. Getting back to “normal”, or as close to normal as possible, will require creativity and flexibility, but it will not be the last decisions that will be required to adapt to changing standards and expectations.

As we move further down the path of reopening, we must constantly look to the future to determine how and where the pandemic’s effects will surface, and what changes will be needed to ensure that the organization is prepared to address revisions to its policies and practices. A few of the effects that employers should plan for and be prepared to respond to, include:

1) The extent working remotely remains available

The ability to perform some essential work remotely has been the savior of many businesses. It also happens to be one of the most popular benefit requests of employees, as they attempt to find ways to balance their work and personal obligations. Now that employers have demonstrated an ability to accommodate work from home solutions, it is likely that many employees will request remote working arrangements remain a part of their ongoing work schedule. Employers will have to decide how to respond to these requests and what types of standards will be established to ensure that employees who are granted the ability to work from home remain productive and a visible part of the team. It will also need to be decided how employees whose job is not conducive to working from home will be informed of the organization’s decision.

If employers determine that working remotely is a viable option for some employees, one approach that might be considered is to treat work from home privileges as they would other “benefits”. Establish performance standards that, once attained and sustained, employees would be granted the privilege to work from home for at least a part of the normal work week. Continued performance would be required in order to retain the work from home benefit. With this approach, employees will have a path to the flexibility they want, and employers can ensure that performance standards are maintained.

In order to avoid “winners and losers”, it is important for employers to accurately identify which job roles are candidates for work at home arrangements, and which are not. Think through your decisions carefully, base them on specific job demands – not whether the employee is trustworthy or not – and be prepared for employees to challenge your decisions. Employees should be notified of these capabilities as soon as possible – preferably before the requests begin to mount.

2) How will the performance management program be impacted?

For those employers who have a performance management program in place, a decision will need to be made as to how the pandemic’s impact on business will be factored into how individual employee performance is measured and assessed. Despite the heroic efforts of employees working under difficult circumstances, it is to be expected that their performance is going to be significantly impacted. If the organization also ties compensation and/or job promotions to performance evaluations, the role the assessment plays in determining these rewards will take on an even greater significance.

Determinations regarding how or if, this year’s performance cycle will be impacted should be made well in advance of when the assessments are scheduled to be prepared and delivered. Difficult decisions will also need to be made regarding the availability of merit increases (if feasible) given the business has probably underperformed against yearly financial goals. If the performance cycle coincides with the end of the calendar year, and the business has been successful in returning to some resemblance of normalcy, there may be an expectation that consideration will be given to the effort employees made to help the business remain viable. Accordingly, decisions around how assessments and rewards will be managed should be considered very carefully. The sooner these debates can begin within the organization’s management structure, the more time can be dedicated to ensuring an equitable decision is made.

3) Will temporary changes to the PTO/ time off benefits be needed?

The uncertain nature of work schedules during the pandemic has played havoc on plans for time off/vacations. As a result, employees who remained employed during the business interruption will likely have stored up more unused PTO/vacation than they had planned. In addition, plans for future use of PTO/vacations have probably been changed dramatically, or scrapped completely. With nowhere to go, it is likely that at the end of the benefit cycle, many employees will have paid time off balances above what they may be allowed to carry forward by policy.

Employers who have not already paid out accrued, but unused PTO/vacation time associated with furloughs or layoffs, will be faced with a decision as to how they will address the question of excess unused time off benefits for their active employees. This decision will no doubt be impacted by the business’s cash flow situation; however, fairness and equity should also factor into the decision as to how the business will address this issue.

4) Refocus on job descriptions

From a purely legal perspective, job descriptions are not a requirement for business, however they can play an important role in helping organize work, and ensure that employees understand the expectations the company has for them. As work assignments are impacted by changes to the workplace – such as job consolidations, job sharing, remote/onsite work arrangements, and requests for added accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), job descriptions will prove to be a key tool in both legal compliance and effectively managing the workforce.

When businesses rethink and redesign the demands of their roles, it is important to update existing job descriptions to ensure they clearly reflect the essential functions of each job. As mentioned earlier in this article, with job changes being made for emergency purposes, questions will surface as to whether certain aspects of an employee’s job are actually “essential”. This distinction will become important when employers are asked to make changes or accommodations by employees seeking to conform their jobs to the what they believe best fits their needs. While some of these requests may be based in ADA compliance, others are sure to be more for convenience and balance. It will be important for employers to establish their case for what aspects of jobs can be altered and which cannot. This is probably not one of the things that an employer will want to access on an individual basis.

These are but a few examples of the types of effects the COVID-19 pandemic will have on otherwise unrelated business policies and processes. Employers should begin to assess their individual situations in an effort to identify other possible effects that will need to be planned for as the business moves forward. Immediate needs always demand immediate attention, however the strategic value of looking to the future and thinking forward should also be a vital part of an organization’s long-term COVID-19 recovery plan.

About the Author

Nathan Duet brings expertise 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. Contact Nathan at