2021 Innovation Issue: Creating the post-pandemic workplace

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Because of the nature of his job, Kevin Brinegar, president and CEO of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, could never switch fully to remote work. Yet during the pandemic, he often found himself at home instead of at the office, conducting Zoom meetings while his two Labrador retrievers slept at his feet.

“I would sometimes pick the camera up off the computer, show them the dogs and say, ‘If you have any questions, I’ll refer them to my interns,’” Brinegar said.

Since March 2020, a large portion of the Hoosier proletariat found itself in the same boat, facing both the perks (no commute, working in sweatpants, flexible hours) and the hassles (isolation, juggling child care and office assignments) of remote work. But as the pandemic recedes and companies summon their staffs back to the office, another set of problems has arisen: how to get everyone (or at least a certain percentage of everyone) back to their desks with a minimum of disruption.

“We’re going to have to embrace flexibility in the way we allow people to do their jobs,” said Jeremy York, lead consultant and president of Indianapolis-based human resources consulting firm InvigorateHR. “I think that also means being transparent in the way we communicate employer and employee needs.”

Just as happened at the beginning of the outbreak, managers and employees are once again navigating terra incognita, feeling their way toward a new workplace normal.

“We all had this vision that, once it was over, we were going to rip up our masks and it would be like we’d awakened from a dream and everything would be exactly like it used to be,” said Elizabeth Malatestinic, a senior lecturer in human resources management at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business. “But it’s just not. We have to adapt.”

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At-will employment

Some of the most straightforward issues are legal ones. What, exactly, can businesses require of their returning staff? Turns out, quite a bit.

“Indiana is an employment-at-will state, and that means employers can do whatever they want for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason, as long as it’s not an illegal reason,” said attorney Joseph Pettygrove, specialist in human resources law and a partner at Kroger Gardis & Regas LLP in Indianapolis.

But that statement carries lots of caveats. First and foremost is the fact that, in the past year, remote work has gone from a relative rarity to an everyday occurrence, all while causing no apparent detriment to the bottom line. Indeed, an Indiana Chamber of Commerce study released in October showed that, out of 937 Hoosier employers surveyed, 22% planned to allow more remote work in the future.

Statistics also show that a significant percentage of workers might not go peacefully back to their cubicles, no matter what state law says. A survey by global professional services firm PwC found that, while 75% of employers foresaw having at least half of their staff back in the office by July, only 61% of employees held the same view. And while 29% of employees would like to work from home five days a week post-pandemic, only 5% of employers concurred.

So, clearly, when companies get back to something approaching normal, there are going to be some frank conversations about who can work remotely and for how long. And those could get tricky.

“The world has changed since last year, and remote work could be seen as a perk that employers offer,” Pettygrove said. “Not necessarily because they have to under the law, but because they’re competing for labor.”

Make no mistake, though—the law will definitely decide how some employees are treated. For instance, staffers who want to continue working remotely because they’re either vulnerable to infection or unable to take the vaccine can seek protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Likewise, provisions in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act require employers to exempt or otherwise accommodate employees who object to the vaccine for religious reasons.

“Employers should be very cautious when considering mandating vaccinations, because of certain legal and risk ramifications that might be involved,” York said. Instead, the current thinking is to strongly encourage getting the vaccine, perhaps via incentives such as paid time off to get the shots and to weather any side effects.

“I think what employment attorneys like myself are advocating is to recommend the vaccine to employees, but not require it or engage in tracking or verifying vaccination status,” Pettygrove said. “That’s my advice for a non-health-care employer.”

Individual approach

But vaccination policy is just one part of the complex balancing act businesses will face upon reopening.

“Do we still have everybody wear masks?” Pettygrove said. “Do we still do lots of environmental cleaning and social distancing? Is the workplace going to look like it did in February of 2020, or is it going to be something new?”

The problem is that many employers will have to deal with multiple, opposing views about how to handle in-person human interaction. Some immunocompromised people will still fear rubbing shoulders with fellow workers, some of whom never took the CDC guidelines about masks and handwashing seriously and still don’t. Getting such diametrically opposed groups to play together nicely will be difficult.

The trick, said Pettygrove and others, is to offer an individual approach to every employee. For instance, if 30 staffers want to work remotely, it behooves HR to address each one individually and offer specific reasons why a desire to work from home four days a week can or can’t be accommodated.

“Because, whatever you’re asking for, you need to have a reason,” he said.

It’s also wise to make sure that whatever decision is reached is backed up by some form of data—perhaps stats showing that a particular job is best performed in person, or that remote workers in certain positions still need to show up at the office twice a week.

As for when and how to return to the office, one favored approach is to stagger it by departments, so not everyone returns at once. Brinegar at the Indiana Chamber of Commerce said many employers are providing extra time for staffers to get their post-COVID lives in order before returning to their desks.

“They need time to get the kids out of school, things like that,” he said. “Many companies are thinking about late June or sometime in July.”

Reestablishing culture

During the height of the pandemic, there was a lot of big talk from some employers about how the in-person office was a thing of the past and the entire enterprise might go remote. There’s a lot less of that now. Companies are more interested in fostering the sorts of face-to-face encounters that are impossible to reproduce in even the most productive Zoom meetings.

“There’s a lot of desire, both on the employer’s part and in the case of employees, to get back together and reestablish the company culture,” Brinegar said.

However, one type of business interaction—the business trip—might be curtailed.

“I think business travel has changed forever,” Brinegar said. “I think trips will be more scrutinized. Is it really important that we go there to get the job done? Do we need to go there for relationship-building purposes?”

The greatest challenge for HR departments and managers, Malatestinic said, is displaying plenty of understanding and empathy to workers who are once again turning their schedules and lives on their heads to return to work.

“I think it’s important to be open with your employees and understand that each one may see returning to work very differently,” she said. “Sometimes, there just isn’t anything you can do about their concerns, but just being open and willing to listen will be helpful and important.”

One item that probably won’t be acceptable anymore, however, is unnecessary in-person meetings or gatherings that routinely start 10 or 15 minutes late after attendees finally straggle in.

“There isn’t going to be much tolerance for that kind of thing anymore,” Malatestinic said. Workers have “learned to use their time more efficiently.”•

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