Jobs & Unemployment

Employers Need to Move Forward With Sensitivity and Care

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Credit: Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash

When we were raising a toast on New Year's Eve 2019, ringing in the new year with hope and excitement, we could be forgiven for our optimism for 2020; who could have predicted the year that lay ahead and would continue on through not only 2021, but now also 2022?

Yet, here we are, still in an ever-changing mix of work-from-home, remote education and other restrictions, along with evolving CDC recommendations, terrifying new variants, and the residual vaccine hesitancy and skepticism. Considering all of this, coupled with the terrifying statistics splashed across the headlines every day for the past nearly two years now, it's understandable that many are nervous about returning to work. 

Employers have their work cut out for them as companies make decisions about bringing employees back to the office in some capacity—this transition must be done with the utmost sensitivity to the needs, concerns and safety of their employees. Employers are likely to have a number of questions as we all re-adapt yet again to our new “normal.”   

Should employers continue to give employees the option to work remotely?

Although all the data that surrounds remote work shows that it leads to increases in employee happiness and productivity, there still seems to be pushback from some companies. For companies eager to return to the office, should in-person work be enforced? And when is it reasonable to make a return to the office a requirement?

Companies need to be sensitive and empathetic to the anxiety that may be caused by insisting workers return to the office (especially with the new Omicron variant rapidly spreading). Remember, many of us have been in some form of lockdown—and exercising caution around socializing—for nearly two years now. The world has experienced a collective upheaval unlike anything we have ever experienced in our lifetime. So, this will require a significant adjustment. Every individual is different, and reactions to yet another massive cultural shift will be just as varied, which means companies need to move forward with empathy and flexibility.

What that means in practical terms is allow your employees to choose where they work. Listen to their concerns. Ask them what they need to do their best work and support them. While it’s completely understandable that some employees will want to get back to the office as soon as possible, others will need more time, and some may have discovered that forgoing a commute and working from home actually serves them better. It’s also important to keep in mind that many have had to drastically restructure their lives over the last year. My approach has always been if you are productive, you could work from anywhere—it’s your life, your choice. 

How do we handle illness going forward?

As you can imagine, employers are going to have a minefield when it comes to employee illness and the various hot-button issues surrounding that. What if someone feels ill? Should they be allowed to come into work? Can employers make that choice for their employees? And how do you define ill? It might seem obvious (i.e., tell anyone who is sick to work from home until they’re better), but this gets complicated very quickly. For example, some employers may want to require proof of diagnosis to minimize overuse of a flexible illness policy, but that can actually be counterproductive and typically isn’t worth the downsides and potential risks (like sick employees feeling obligated to still come into work and infecting others). And what should an employer do if they have an employee who wants to work in the office but has possible COVID-19 symptoms that they say are from something non-contagious, like allergies? Should they require them to stay home? Should some kind of proof be required? Or what about employers who want to require workers to show a negative COVID-19 test as proof that they are healthy? Who absorbs that cost? As you can see, this issue raises many more questions than answers around not only workplace safety, but also workers’ rights, employee privacy concerns and even employment discrimination.

I expect the forthcoming protocols for illness as well as for returning to work after being sick (or being around someone sick) to be far more stringent than they have in the past. While illness policies have the potential to be abused, companies will likely counter that with a formal protocol for returning to work after illness (it’s important they be weary here though, as such a policy ought not be so difficult that it incentivizes sick employees to come into the office).

Although employers will already be treading carefully with these new human resource considerations for the foreseeable future, there are a few other challenges employers will have to consider as well.

Should employers mandate social distancing and masks in the office?

As employers look to bring employees back to their offices, what safety measures should they enforce? What measures can they enforce? Should employers require masks or temperature checks? What about social distancing, the efficacy of which, when indoors, has come into question by researchers.  

Should employers be investing in air filters and ventilation to minimize spread? The obligations of employers on these issues are still very unclear. And considering that many workers will have their own personal views on what they feel is and isn’t safe, employers have a huge challenge ahead when it comes to getting all of their employees on board. It would seem like many of the new social norms that we’ve become accustomed to may persist, which means businesses may be dealing with these questions well into the foreseeable future. 

When it comes to the safety and rights of employees, liability as an employer can be a nightmare (understanding obligations can be confusing and complicated, especially as they’re continually evolving and changing), so companies often err on the safe side and go above and beyond, engineering safety protocols to avoid being sued. My prediction is that this is what many will choose to do out of an abundance of caution, which means employers may find themselves following procedures—some solely for the sake of following procedure—even after they no longer seem necessary.

In conclusion 

As we ring in 2022—the third year of the pandemic—we are truly navigating our way through completely unprecedented times, and no one is completely sure of what lies ahead. Getting through this means being dynamic, adaptive and flexible. On the face of it, employers will need to be more sensitive to the individual needs of their staff and do everything they can to balance protecting employee safety, employee rights and their own liability. Remember, empathy and flexibility are key for moving forward together through this time. 

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

Arran Stewart

Arran James Stewart is the co-founder and CVO of blockchain recruitment platform Job.com. Relying on a decade worth of experience in the recruitment industry, Arran has consistently sought to bring recruitment to the cutting edge of technology. Arran helped develop one of the world’s first multi-post to media buy talent attraction portals, and also helped reinvent the way job content found candidates through utilizing matching technology against job aggregation. Arran is currently launching the first blockchain recruitment platform with Job.com – which aims to be the most secure, efficient, and transparent hiring process ever. As a first-mover in online recruitment technology with a decade of experience in recruitment, Arran’s expertise has been featured in Forbes, Reuters, Wired, and Hacker Noon, among other publications.

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