Moving Forward – Life in the Workplace After COVID-19

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There’s an old saying in French – “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Roughly translated, it means, “The more things change, the most they stay the same.” That phrase may soon fade into extinction because the COVID-19 pandemic has and will continue to dramatically and irreversibly change so many aspects of our lives. From social interactions to hiring and conducting the business of our lives, this worldwide threat has brought about changes that may significantly alter the rest of our personal and professional lives. Many of the ways we did business six months ago may be uncomfortable and essentially unnecessary, replaced by the methods we’ve had to adapt to recently. What seemed untenable just two weeks ago could be our new standard now and in the future.

We will probably never again feel comfortable touching surfaces in public places, shaking hands even with close friends, and standing close to people we don’t know. It may take a long time before people gather in large groups, creating a devastating and possibly interminable shift in so many things we’ve enjoyed, from concerts to sporting events to movies to religious services to Broadway shows and even to work in an office with our teammates. The duration and severity of this interruption to the livelihoods of the millions who have long depended on these business segments and countless other industries and institutions are unforeseeable.

Human Resources has already been and will continue to be impacted. We can no longer look at recruiting, hiring, and what we used to consider the workplace the same. None of us knows when offices will reopen and how comfortable we’ll be working close to people with whom we used to feel comfortable working with, side by side.  Personal perspectives aside, how will employers react in the long-term?

All of us know the impact of COVID-19 today. While the future is difficult to predict, here are a few ways in which organizations may be forced to adapt as part of a post-pandemic HR business model:

  • Recruiting

Organizations that employ predominantly blue-collar workers may consider very local searches for candidates. These include shipping and fulfillment warehouses, pharmacies and pharmaceutical operations, delivery services, take-out food franchises, hardware stores, wholesale clubs, and food manufacturers and processors. Searches may be gradually geographically broadened if necessary. Alternatively, organizations may consider repurposing existing employees based on geography to fill more vital positions. Job candidates may not want to travel more than they have to.

  • Interviewing

Few people on either side of the table are comfortable with face-to-face meetings. Apps such as FaceTime and Zoom are safer, and most people today are comfortable using them. They also provide the opportunity for multiple interviewers in different locations to participate, perfect for shelter-in-place situations.

  • Onboarding

Organizations have found that onboarding may be handled virtually. It may be difficult since this is the time when bonds are formed, and interpersonal relationships are perhaps most valuable. Not being able to onboard a new member of the team face-to-face may make the process cold and impersonal. Video can help. Seeing others smile or tell a little joke to lighten the process can take the frost off the process. Ensure employees demonstrate their positive attitude when welcoming a new employee. It may seem uncomfortable and new at first but may deliver significant benefits down the road. Some companies are even experimenting with virtual reality scenarios for the onboarding experience. There’s no limit to how innovative and fun you can make it!

  • Meetings and Business Travel

As with interviewing, we’ve seen that meetings held via Microsoft Teams, Google Duo, Zoom, or other audio/video applications enabling remote group access can be as viable as in-person meetings. In fact, since each individual is visible to all others throughout the meeting, there’s an impetus for all participants to stay focused for the duration. These applications have additionally offered an alternative to certain business travel.

  • Working remotely

Working remotely pre-COVID-19 had slowly been gaining acceptance; it is now essential for a great many organizations. While allowing all workers to work remotely is not practical for all businesses, including grocery stores, big-box stores such as Costco and Walmart, transportation firms, medical facilities including hospitals, food services (particularly those offering delivery), and others, many businesses have found allowing employees to work from home actually improved productivity.

As we mentioned in HireRight’s 2019 article on remote workers, “While working remotely, productivity increased among all [employees of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)] and continued to rise with each step toward the full work-from-anywhere policy, the researchers found. Productivity increased by 4.4% when employees moved from working at home on a limited basis to the location of their choice. Based on a patent’s average value, this productivity gain could add $1.3 billion of value to the U.S. economy each year, the researchers estimate. By moving to homes in more affordable regions, workers’ real incomes were boosted. The USTPO saved $38.2 million in office costs. Frosting on the cake: By slashing an average of 84 million miles in commutes, emissions were reduced by 44k tons.”

As we also pointed out, supporting work-from-home scenarios open up vast opportunities in hiring disabled but highly-capable workers for whom mobility may be a challenge. Win/win.

  • Planning for Succession

As revealed in The Wall Street Journal, several forward-thinking CEOs have reviewed their succession plans and anticipated a day when they might become too sick to work. Organizations, having seen how a pandemic or even a significant weather event such as a major hurricane can decimate every business, large or small, have instituted back-up plans for senior executives and employees in key roles. It is impossible to predict who may be stricken, so preparing for the worst by ensuring operations can continue with employees stepping into positions vacated by ill or isolated staff within 24 hours is a prudent move. Rather than assume a monolithic decision-making process, critical business resolutions should be made with the inclusion of all members of the senior leadership team. Processes must be documented and shared. Moving forward, all organizations should have an effective and efficient plan for succession if and when a significant event may remove pivotal employees.

We want to point out that COVID-19 has also brought about humanitarian changes for the good. The pandemic has created a sense that we’re all in this together, and that, much like the British during the Blitz, this can be our finest hour. We all have a common adversary, and we’re seeing true leaders rise to the occasion. Acts of selflessness, compassion, and altruism are abounding. We’re seeing our best, just as we saw after 9/11. In the face of adversity, we adapt, persevere, and excel.

And when we again face a pandemic in the future, on both personal and business levels, we are now far better prepared. We’ve been able to ride this tsunami, make painful but necessary changes, and know what shifts are required to survive and once again thrive. Relationships and contact information for local, state and federal health departments should be implemented or updated. A systemic response plan should be put in place, complete with tolerances that would trigger appropriate responses, including:

  • Remote work implementations
  • Cessation of business travel and meetings
  • Office closings
  • Monitoring of requests for sick days and establishing a response if an unusual increase in absenteeism is noticed is advisable
  • Consideration of alternatives if suppliers and partners must close down
  • Preparation of clear instructions for employees based on factual CDC information that offer safe practices when severe illness strikes – don’t assume they’re getting it elsewhere
  • Review of sick leave policies and offer options for significant events

If we’ve learned anything from COVID-19, it is that preparedness is essential. “It can’t happen here” must no longer be part of our vocabulary.

Lewis Lustman

Lewis Lustman is a content marketer who enjoys developing materials that engage, inform, challenge, and hopefully entertain my audience. Lewis is a former journalist for Los Angeles Magazine and the Los Angeles Times, and has worked for a number of leading advertising, marketing, technology, and PR firms over the years. Interested in a topic that he hasn't yet tackled? Drop him a line in the comments section!

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