Dilemmas in the Covid-era Workplace: What we have learned this year and considerations for the future

By Jennifer Scott | Senior HR Consultant

In the Covid-era employment landscape, we have observed emerging themes that pose new challenges for employers. We pulled together a list of ten considerations to provide some insight, support, and guidance for maneuvering through these unusual times.

1. When COVID-19 ends, what will happen to the remote workforce?

Many employers are eager to get back to their conventional work environment and leverage their office space. We suggest employers examine the actual needs of the business first and conduct a cost/benefit analysis for bringing employees back onsite. Some businesses have legitimate reasons to have jobs performed onsite, but some positions operate just as well or even better remotely. Worker expectations are changing too, with many remote employees finding more balance in their lives, while the work is still getting done. Employees are enjoying reduced commute times, fewer distractions, and the ability to manage their work autonomously. In one case, we saw an employer arbitrarily require workers to return to onsite work, only to have their entire workforce rebel and quit. Decisions should be made according to what makes the most sense for the job functions, productivity metrics, costs to operations, client-facing requirements, employee engagement, etc. We believe many employers will be reimagining the workplace from here on out and many pre-2020 norms may be a thing of the past. 

2. How can you engage remote workers?

When workers feel detached, they may feel less connected to the company’s mission, values, and goals. Creating engagement and connection with remote workers should be a mission critical aspect of your operations strategy. Managers need to stay close to their workers via regular video and phone interaction. Making time for human interaction is also important. A large healthcare system we worked with always starts its team meetings with an affirmation, an inspiring story, or a life lesson that attendees can benefit from or enjoy. It can be a great ice breaker and ease the way into the meeting. More importantly, it helps to connect people emotionally and remind them that they are part of a team. Make it fun, listen, be transparent, and productive. Other ideas to connect include personal calls (video or phone) to say hello or check in, and sending personal cards or token gifts as thank you’s or simply staying-connected gestures.

3. How do you effectively manage employees remotely?

There are hundreds of articles and books available on this hot topic. From an HR perspective, the foundation is creating accurate job descriptions with clear essential functions, determining and setting measurable goals, setting clear expectations, and then providing regular communication, work review, and feedback. Employers need to examine the communication channels and workflows that are impacted by moving the work to remote locations and adapt their practices accordingly. Although many employers are still working out their approaches to managing remotely, other companies have operated successfully for years with large remote workforces (e.g., Dell, Aetna). There’s no real substitute for being around people, though. We learn from each other, stay socialized and yes, get dressed for the job. Even if employees successfully work remotely, once Covid restrictions are lifted, we recommend finding ways to connect them periodically, via in-house meetings, periodic retreats, one day per week or month onsite, etc. 

4. Is pay affected when someone moves from a high-income state to a lower-income state to work remotely and perform the same job? Which state’s laws govern?

Compensation is generally calculated regionally unless it’s a temporary change. If an employee moves from a higher cost state to a less expensive state, in most cases their compensation should be adjusted. Exceptions include positions that oversee regional or national territories versus local areas. Geographic salary surveys can help employers determine variances between regions. This type of compensation planning will require some review of internal and external factors to make a determination, while also taking into consideration fair pay practices and laws. The state in which the employee works governs the labor laws that apply. 

5. Will workers who come back into the office be paid more than their remote counterparts?

Maybe. All things being equal, onsite work would be paid the same as remote work, but there may be factors that make the onsite work more valuable or there may be tasks and functions that can only be accomplished onsite. If those who are onsite end up contributing more or performing additional or higher-level duties, they may well end up with higher compensation. Compensation should be based on current job descriptions and established pay ranges, calibrated to market/location and internal equity.

6. How do you create or sustain a company culture remotely?

Communication is key. Most effective is video time where employees’ attention is devoted to live communication and expression of ideas, sharing important company information and updates, and real-time collaboration. Video builds more connection than phone calls or emails and it cuts down on multitasking during calls. The format can be standing 1:1 video meetings, regular team meetings, and at least quarterly all-hands meetings. Employers may opt to invest in company-wide programs that plan and promote activities, both fun (e.g., friendly competitions) and serious (e.g., communication of mission, company status/goals/programs), to promote company culture.

7. What about all the money employers are saving if they give up overhead?

In some cases, employers may find they are saving money by reducing commercial space/offices/utilities.  These savings may be absorbed by the business or used to fund product development, capital investments, or marketing. They may also be used to enhance employee benefits, or if the company was paying below market, allow the company to increase pay to market levels or pay above market in order to gain a competitive edge. We generally advise employers to pay a fair market rate unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise. Best practice for compensation planning starts with creating a compensation committee made up of HR and key members of the executive team. The committee will determine what is required to attract and retain qualified talent and develop a compensation philosophy statement. HR can then develop the compensation plan, in partnership with external compensation experts if needed.

8. Will working parents get paid less if they have to care for their children during normal work hours?

The employer will have to determine how they will address employee availability, bearing in mind operational requirements and any legal requirements for time off and reasonable accommodations. Options include leaves, re-allocation of job duties (temporary and permanent), and reduction of hours. Some jobs are adaptable to working at all hours of the day or night. Others are not and employees may end up with different duties and pay that better fit their availability, or the employer may not be able to support their individual needs at all. Pay decisions should be based on the job functions performed. If an employee is unable to perform their job or meet performance expectations, it is addressed the same way any performance problem is addressed, through corrective or disciplinary action, or the employee may choose to resign.

9. Can an employee refuse to work or refuse to come back to the office if they have to care for an immune-compromised relative and do not want the added risk and/or exposure of coming to the office?

An otherwise healthy employee is not generally entitled to stay at home due to the danger of infecting a vulnerable family member. That means it’s between the employer and the employee to see if they can work something out. Employers may be able to temporarily accommodate employees by allowing them to continue remote work or to take unpaid leave. We suggest employers use an interactive process to analyze the job responsibilities and requirements to perform the essential functions of the job, along with the employee’s needs and abilities. Care should be taken with setting precedents and ensuring decisions are fair and impartial. If the employer cannot or will not accommodate the employee, the employee will have the option to decide whether they will continue in their role or resign. In general, employees that refuse to come to work are subject to termination.

10. What do you do when recalled workers don’t want to come back into the office due to safety concerns?

The CDC and local health departments have developed safety protocols for workplaces. Employers are required to provide a safe place to work under these guidelines. If an employee won’t return to work because an employer hasn’t done their due diligence in making the workplace safe, it’s on the employer to make that right. Once that is done, they have the right to recall workers, bearing in mind that many local governments are asking employers to keep employees remote as much as possible during Covid. For employees whose jobs can be done effectively remotely, we encourage employers to consider the overall and long-term impacts of remote work including the impact on retention, morale, operations, and customers. The traditional office workplace may now be a thing of the past for some positions and/or industries. A blend of remote and onsite work is one approach, or allowing employees to be fully remote when it makes sense for the business.