The modern workforce will forever be changed due to COVID and the rise of hybrid work schedules. In the early spring of 2020, most companies were focused on the normal ins and outs of the business, such as offering good services to their clients and managing a growing team of strong employees. Before COVID, the concept of telework in many environments was limited to a handful of employees whose roles required them to be on the go and constantly meeting with clients. All of the other positions likely needed a special case to telework and would be for a designated length of time. Many offices were faced with overcrowding, and many leaders were challenged with finding more ways to create workspaces in our current building. Ideas such as hoteling spots and permanent remote work were being introduced along with new office space buildouts to manage the growing workforce.
The workforce had no idea what was on the horizon and how much it would impact all employees, severely effecting one population – the working parent.
Pre-COVID, employers in the U.S. understood that parents needed the flexibility to manage school events and sick days when schools and daycares would send their child home. In addition, HIPAA laws made tracking of medical information very clear – private data needed to be maintained at high levels, and breaking that confidentiality was not allowed. Everyone would soon be introduced to a new grey area once COVID hit the workforce, as the rules of disclosing the information would soon be challenged.
AC (After COVID)
Enter the modern paradigm shift that several predicted, yet no one saw coming! We’ve all seen the documents and reports from Bill Gates and former President Barack Obama that a global pandemic was coming – but the when was never a real focus. Many businesses across the U.S. and the world were left with some tough decisions to make, especially in industries that do not shut down. To the “essential workforce,” it became clear that new technology, new policies, and a completely new mindset were needed to maintain business continuity in competitive markets. Companies’ responses during this time were carefully crafted by staff leaders, who focused on the virus, and what would be necessary to keep their employees safe and their clients supported. “Corona preparedness” was a topic of daily discussion in executive meetings, as rules and policy changes were happening to react to the growing threat of the virus. Telework options were no longer for a small minority, but for all – to limit the amount of exposure in the workplace – which has now evolved into today’s era of the hybrid workforce. For many companies, the hybrid workforce has transitioned as vaccinations and workplace safety has increased. Initially, 100% telework was the likely solution that was put into place – with a transition to 3 days of telework and 2 days in the office – for those companies that were less impacted by the virus. Fast forward 1 year later…many companies have maintained these new hybrid work environments to maintain the safety of their employees. Strong cleaning practices, ample PPE on-hand, and constant reminders to social distance, have helped to keep the workforce healthy and functioning.
A World Where Vaccinations Matter
The U.S. workforce is faced with an ever-changing landscape due to political climate, social impact, and other factors. In 2020, Mother Nature decided to add her name to the list that will forever shape the workplace culture. The announcement of a vaccine, for many, meant freedom – the freedom to return to the way things had been, to see friends and family, and to go back to work as usual (all with the lessons we have learned, of course). The vaccine, however, has brought more than just freedom to the table – especially for the workforce. HR professionals across the world have been faced with the ever-growing challenge of what to do about vaccinations. Should we track them? Are we required to gather this information from our staff? Should we make vaccinations mandatory to return to the workplace, and if so, what happens to those who refuse or cannot take the shots? Enter the conundrum of 2021. As the vaccine has become more readily available, many businesses have shifted to mandate the vaccine for their workforce. Major airline corporations and other big Silicon Valley giants have even let go of employees for failure to comply. We are faced with so many unknowns as HR professionals, from collecting the vaccination data in a secure manner to what the long-term ramifications of issues or illnesses that arise are should something adverse develop with the employees due to the vaccine. In many workplaces, the decision was made to not require the vaccine or documentation until it becomes mandated by law. This would afford businesses the time to study the impact of policy change and sensitive information in the workplace.
EFMLA and EPSL
Rule changes have drastically impacted the workplace. In response to the need for employees to take off time for both testing and recovery of the virus, along with taking care of others with the virus, the government introduced Emergency Paid Sick Leave (EPSL) (80 hours) and Emergency FMLA (EFMLA) (12 Weeks – Paid Sick Leave). We introduced the EPSL to accommodate for the time it would take for the testing and recovery from a bout with COVID. An employee would be allowed to return to work after 10-14 days of quarantine and no symptoms. This relief supported millions who needed time to recover and to take care of other loved ones. The company granted the time, and in return received a tax break from the government. This was a big key benefit that was afforded to employees to ease the hardship of being out of work after being exposed to or contracting the virus. In addition, if an employee had not fully recovered and needed more time off, the traditional unpaid medical leave was now a paid option that allowed for up to 12 weeks total for recovery, while receiving some form of compensation, but the EFMLA didn’t stop there. Many parents were also impacted by schools closing, and there was a continued need to stay home and take care of young ones. For anyone unable to telework, the Emergency FMLA provided 12 weeks of paid leave to support their needs.
Rebounding and Lessons Learned
After 18 months of the pandemic, many companies are now set up to move forward in what is now the new norm! For quite some time, we, as leaders, told ourselves this is temporary, and we will get back to the way things have always been. We now see that this virus will be with us for some time, and what was deemed temporary is the new landscape that all employers and employees need to adapt to – or be left behind. Technology has forever been changed with the rise of video interviews and Zoom meetings. As an HR leader who previously worked for a global organization, Zoom was a tool I was using five years ago to stay connected to my teams overseas. It was a luxury that was not needed for most U.S. companies and was slow to be adapted. Today, Zoom and other video conferencing platforms are now completely integrated into the fabric of what most workplaces do from employee monthly meetings, one-on-ones, trainings to board meetings, court cases, and other client events. Video conferencing is now an option that is on the table. Recruitment candidates quickly adapted to the video conferencing model of interviewing, which helped to speed up hiring in many cases, and allowed for less travel into the office for multiple rounds of interviews. The proliferation of video conferencing has been an enormous benefit to business continuity. An additional side effect also hit the global workplace – a mass exodus from employees’ current jobs. Many employees were both exhausted and not happy, so they decided to push back and work in a new environment altogether. Navigating this change requires employers to maintain benefits, like ongoing telework and other options to keep employees engaged.
Businesses recognize that the workforce has also suffered from the lack of in-person connectivity and engagement. The isolationism that telework has created has made its impact on the mental health of the global workforce. Many businesses have begun to take steps to make sure that they have engagement sessions with their staff that offers virtual and in-person components to bring back some of the personal connections that the virtual environment has impacted. Mental health is a key focus for HR leaders, as we recognize that a strong physical and mental workforce is the key to our continued success and longevity. As we look back, the goal of maintaining business continuity for clients and a strong, healthy workforce has come to fruition in many ways. HR professionals recognize that we are now in uncharted territory; and that this is going to take some trial and error to continue to get it right for the workforce. 2022 is shaping up to be an amazing year. We are doing everything possible to set us up for success.
By James Moye, SPHR
James is nearing his one year anniversary with Cardinal Management Group, Inc., and has enjoyed bringing his expertise and vast experience to the team. He has recently taken Julie Adamen’s CAM 101 and is looking forward to further participating in WMCCAI and embracing the industry and those who care for it.