Rule 8: Don’t Waste the Crisis – Return to Work in the Time of COVID-19

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Epstein Becker & Green

Part 8 of a series featuring our video Rules of the Road: Return to Work in the Time of COVID-19.

If there has been one, singular guiding principle or mantra – that has sustained us, challenged us, and in some cases, inspired us over these last few months, this is it. “Don’t Waste the Crisis.” It is also the mantra that will propel us forward.

Flashback to the eve of Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order in March, shutting down New York State and New York City as the nation and the world watched. In the countdown leading up to its effective date, there was a palpable feeling of existential unrest – that life as we knew it was about to change and the duration of the change was unknown, but the nature and impact of the change felt heavy already.

The shut-downs initially made many us wonder – what are we going to do during this time? – and led many to think about catching up on all the things we ever wanted to watch, read, listen to, stream, learn, reorganize, redecorate, and remodel – all while potentially wearing athleisure (check, done).

But as the pandemic persisted, the questions evolved along more practical as well as philosophical lines, such as: What are we going to do with this time? Where are we going to live? Where will we work? How will we work?

And, now we have reached a where we should consider what have we learned from this period that will make us better, stronger, and more resilient? How will this transform us as individuals, as families, as social creatures and as organizations? How will history remember what we did with this period? And what and how much of what we learned and accomplished will be (or should be) carried forward into whatever comes next?

What We Learned Is Powerful: Don’t Let it Go to Waste…

  1. Work Is Something That You Do – Not Necessarily Somewhere You Go

For many, and aside from those brave men and women serving on the frontlines whose workplace has by necessity remained at a physical site, the pandemic has caused us to shift our collective psychology around the nature and function of work itself. From an idea of work being somewhere you go – to work becoming something that you do. The balance, of course, is to avoid a situation where employees feel that they are working from home, and not living at work. One size is not going to fit all employers. A critical look at the right balance and mix that is right for your workforce will be a prudent exercise.

  1. We Always Had The Technology – We’re Only Just Now Leveraging Its Full Potential

Zoom, Slack, Google Chat, FaceTime, and WebEx are not new technologies. They have been around, invested in and accessible for years. But they have been underutilized, latent resources – until now, when the need and pace of their use has been accelerated. Companies should consider whether their employees can continue to work from home, and if so, how technology might facilitate that happening effectively, on a more permanent basis. Many companies are offering tech stipends to upgrade home equipment, including ergonomic furniture, printers, professional lightening, and a myriad of other tech gadgets. Others are working on their backend infrastructure, VPNs, and shared file services to upgrade functionality to improve the remote work experience, as well as to ensure data privacy and security are maintained. (Zoom bomb anyone?)

  1. Destigmatizing and Rethinking Remote Working

We may very well be at an inflection point in considering whether a job or function must or should be done from the office — ever. The next phase will likely see one of three models of working: (1) permanent remote working, (2) permanent in-office working, and (3) a hybrid model where employees will be expected to come into the physical office a certain number of days or certain weeks, and may or may not have a permanent place of working (e.g., transitioning to the “hoteling” model that is common in consulting firms).

Each model will have their value. Each will have their challenges. But, we may indeed be at a point where we resist automatically concluding that remote working is suboptimal, and instead consider whether there are strategic advantages and cost saving opportunities, such as reducing rent, real estate and related costs with a smaller on premises work force.  Certainly, many roles and job-duties will remain that cannot be performed remotely, but employers should look closely at the jobs and tasks that have been performed remotely for several months and evaluate what that might mean for flexible-work, part-time remote work, or “agile” working.

With many employees performing their roles effectively in a remote-work environment, companies may also want to reimagine using remote-work as a reasonable accommodation for an employee seeking one because of a disability – or for other reasons, even if not legally required. Plainly, if an employee who performed his job remotely during the pandemic requires emergency leg surgery putting him on crutches and unable to commute to work, an employer will have a difficult time claiming that performing the role remotely for several months would create an “undue burden” on the business.

  1. Staying Relevant and Connected Takes Work

Whether it be Zoom cocktail hours, coffee breaks, networking sessions, galas, concerts or conferences, the pandemic has forced us to think about new ways to stay top of mind for clients and partners, how to sell, and how to cut through the seemingly endless clutter of emails, webinars, networking sessions, and electronic/screentime overload. Managing an agile or entirely remote workforce has also made us rethink the concepts of face time, keeping employees engaged, and also thinking through new and creative ways of encouraging innovation, at a time when in-office, creative collisions are largely not possible. Inevitably, over the course of the last several months, you may have met or interacted with more colleagues, clients, and other connections – some new – some rekindled – and many more than you could have ever engaged with if you had to be in a physical office or jump on a plane for a meeting. Build on those relationships and effective ways of connecting in the next phase.

  1. Culture Comes Through In Crisis

As Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” We agree and would add, “…and culture comes through in a crisis.” How each organization has approached its short, medium and long-term response to the pandemic speaks volumes to the current workforce, the market, and will be noted by investors, recruits and history going forward – for good and for bad. Core to the cultural response is how management communicates with its employees, the level of transparency around issues of policy changes, leaves and accommodations, compensation and benefits, and even how a company approaches and executes on furloughs, reductions in force, and bringing back the workforce. This is where messaging and action from the senior leadership teams can truly shape the identity, culture and values of the organization for years to come.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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