HR Considerations for Returning to Work After COVID-19

  • 5/5/2020
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There are a variety of human resources policies and procedures that should be reviewed, revised, and communicated, while planning for a safe and successful return to the workplace after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key insights

  • Developing business continuity and preparedness plans can help employees return to work safely and successfully and may help everyone to be better prepared for the future.
  • Immediate priorities should include revising employee handbooks and policies related to time off and remote work.
  • Transparency in decision-making may help organizations embrace change successfully.
  • Communication — what information and how it is delivered — has never been more important.

COVID-19 has driven changes into the world of work that we never anticipated. Business leaders and human resources professionals must contemplate the micro-present (right now, this day, this hour), the present as we once defined it (this week, month, or quarter), and the future. Consider creating plans in increments of six, 12, and 18 months to outline how your organization will return to work.

Consider priorities when creating return-to-work plans

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Many priorities you must address are evident, such as how to handle employees who have had COVID-19 or those who are vulnerable. Carefully document decisions and how personnel policies are applied, and keep these files secure. Key considerations are:

  • Employee concerns, including personal health information privacy and commuting to work via public transportation
  • Policy revisions, such as promoting and allowing remote work
  • Understanding a new regulatory landscape:
    • The Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act (mandates paid leave and expands eligibility) 
    • How to take employees’ temperatures and certify fitness for duty, without violating the Americans with Disabilities Act
    • How to protect employees’ information under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act

Prepare the workplace for employees’ return

Workplace preparation is key. It should be informed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidance and resources. Short-term plans might focus on cleaning and measures to provide appropriate supplies, personal protective equipment (PPE), hand sanitizer, and social distancing instructions.

Planning for the long term may mean modifying work spaces to accommodate social distancing and setting policies for maintaining the cleanliness of shared equipment like “hotel desks,” conference rooms, and copiers or printers. Consider developing guidelines for meeting sizes, desk arrangements, navigating small spaces (like elevators and bathrooms), and mask etiquette.

In some industries, employers are already required to distribute PPE (e.g., plastic face guards), and future regulations might define how employees conduct off-site activities, like client visits. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which oversees the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), recently stated that employers may screen employees (and candidates for hire) for COVID-19, and they may take employees’ temperatures at workplace entrances. Any mandatory tests must be job-related, with justifiable business necessity and secure management of the results. Decisions at the state, local, and individual business level need to be made about adopting this practice.

Review key HR policies

Employers should consider revising or modifying their policies or employee handbooks for the short term in several areas.

Paid time off and leave policies

  • Apply the Family First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) appropriately to employees with COVID-19, those caring for family members with COVID-19, or those who cannot access child care.

Workplace accommodation policies

  • The EEOC is allowing greater flexibility in managing accommodations and determining undue hardships — a legitimate reason to deny an employee’s request for accommodation. Employers must navigate a new operational and financial environment with fairness to all.
  • While documentation is always important, now it’s even more critical. Employers must clearly document any business case resulting in a decision to deny accommodations based on hardship.

Remote work policies

  • An on-site office culture may not be immediately possible. Review remote work policies and determine how to set expectations about camera presence and availability on communication tools to maintain team cohesion and accountability.
  • Consider possible employee in-home technology service and security needs.

Communicate and keep planning

Each policy modification, action to make the workplace safer, and communication presents challenges and opportunities. Transparency in decision-making helps organizations sustain the change and increase the employee engagement needed for success.

Leaders should consider naming their sources when communicating decisions, especially when working with geographically dispersed workforces and industries. Develop task forces to help guide the return to work. Phased approaches may be useful. Define steps with external factors (like public health indicators) and internal work conditions (like staggered schedules). Establish regular communications and use surveys or a designated email address to allow employees to provide input and remain invested.

If your organization — whether it’s large, small, or even just a team of one — does not already have business continuity and preparedness plans that include responses to infectious disease, now is the time to develop them. Plan for the return to healthy operations with flexible and supportive leave policies and practices that educate employees, make workplaces safer, and enable the future.

For resources to monitor the coronavirus:

How we can help

CLA’s HR consulting and outsourcing professionals can help you as you transition your employees back to the workplace. We can help you draft relevant HR policies, provide guidance on labor and employment practices, and assist with communication and HR strategies.

Unforeseen disruptions — from the coronavirus (COVID-19) to natural disasters — can create many uncertainties. CLA has developed resources to help you lay out a strategy to put your organization on its toes versus its heels. Bookmark our financial management and disaster relief resource page to stay current on these issues.

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