In Episode 118 of The Workplace podcast, CalChamber Executive Vice President and General Counsel Erika Frank and employment law expert Jennifer Shaw discuss workplace reopenings and what employers should consider when deciding whether to end their remote work programs.
Note: This podcast was recorded on April 16, 2021. Listeners should be aware that given the unpredictability of the COVID-19 pandemic, information shared on this podcast episode may change at any time.
With Governor Gavin Newsom announcing that companies can anticipate fully reopening their businesses on June 15, employers and employees might soon be able to be in the same room together, Frank says.
As companies prepare for that big day, employers should keep in mind that June 15 is an arbitrary date and much will depend on COVID-19 transmission rates and outbreaks, Shaw says.
She advises listeners to remember there are three different types of workplaces: the workplaces that never closed; the workplaces that had to shut down completely; and the hybrid workplaces. Each type of workplace will have a different route to reopening and will require a different plan.
“It’s not a one size fits all,” she says.
Employers will need to make strategic choices on many components, such as which staff members to bring back; whether getting the COVID-19 vaccine will be required; or what type of personal protective equipment (PPE) will be provided, Shaw tells podcast listeners.
Shaw also suggests that every employer think about their individual workplace and look over their employee roster to see who is working remotely and whether every worker needs to be brought back into the worksite or if it is only a select group of people that need to be brought back.
Now is also a good time for employers to look at their internal operations and think about what their ideal workplaces would look like, Frank says. Employers should think about what their employees have been through this past year and think about what they are going to need as they come back to the office, Shaw says. Importantly, employers should think of ways that managers can communicate the company’s expectations.
Flexible Work Schedules
Employers have said that collaboration is harder in remote work arrangements, and many companies are looking into adopting flexible work schedules, Frank says.
The arrangement is challenging because while there are people who love working from home, there are others who can’t wait to go back to work, Shaw says. So, the first thing managers need to do is to take stock of what each employee wants to do and ask them if they like working from home. Employers should not ask whether the employee has been vaccinated.
This is also a great opportunity for employers to look at ways to improve company morale, and take stock of their employees and facility. Employers should think about all the regulations that have been put into place, whether it’s the new sick leave law or the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) emergency temporary standard, Shaw says.
COVID-19 vaccine eligibility has expanded to include people over 16 years of age in California. While many people have already received their vaccines or have made appointments to get them, there are others who are hesitating. Frank asks Shaw what she is seeing from employers.
Shaw replies that she has seen different responses — while some employers don’t care about who gets vaccinated, others require the vaccine, seeing it as their obligation to create a safe work environment. Other employers prefer to incentivize vaccines by telling workers that if they want to come back to the office, they must get vaccinated.
Returning Remote Workers to the Workplace
Whether it is taking naps in the middle of the workday, or inappropriate attire during Zoom meetings, employers have been seeing a number of problematic behaviors from remote workers and have seen productivity levels decline, Frank says. What are employers going to have to deal with when they bring back employees to the workplace, she asks?
Just as it was tough to switch employees to remote work at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s going to be tough getting people to come back to the workplace, Shaw points out. Employers will have to be flexible and be sympathetic to the situation their employees are in. This doesn’t mean, however, that employers can’t hold employees accountable or have expectations.
Finally, Shaw says that employers should have a rationale for everything they do so that they can explain why they are doing what they’re doing. An employer needs to be able to say, “I’ve really thought things through and examined the pros and cons, and effective May 1, I need everyone back in the office. These are all the protocols, and this is how we are going to do it.”
And if an employer decides to continue having employees telework, the employer should decide how the employees will be managed, how productivity will be evaluated, and how bonuses/promotions will be decided, Shaw says.