Back to Work: On (or Off) Site?

With some lockdowns lifting, business leaders face a hard call on where to base their staffs.

The factory manager in Georgia hadn’t planned for this moment. The government announced that many nonessential businesses could reopen, and now it was the manager’s call on who would stay off-site—and who was needed to come in.

Welcome to the next complex—and potentially agonizing—call that corporate chiefs in the age of COVID-19 may be facing sooner than they realize. Beginning this week, many parts of the world, including many states in the US and whole countries such as Italy, are lifting the strictest elements of shelter-in-place orders. Now, instead of asking “How do we get people to work offsite?” many business leaders are asking “How do we get people back?”

But those leaders are quickly determining that it isn’t as easy as telling employees to come back to the factory, warehouse, store, or office. There is plenty of skittishness among employees about whether the workplace—or the commute to it—is safe and sanitary. Workers don’t want to leave their kids alone, either. At the same time, many executives aren’t even sure exactly which employees to bring back on-site. “No one has a playbook yet,” says Dan Kaplan, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who works with human resources executives.

In most cases, companies can set their own rules about where their people work. For the pandemic, the US government issued guidelines encouraging employers to create special accommodations at the workplace for the elderly and people with certain underlying health conditions, but there isn’t any enforcement power behind those guidelines. Workers have some protections to refuse to work if there is a reasonable expectation that workplace conditions could cause serious physical harm or death. In the US, they could file a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

That’s why many experts are advising organizations to stay behind the government rather than get ahead of it. That way, an organization can, along with instituting new rules about social distancing and sanitizing, help show that it’s making a reasonable effort to keep employees safe, a determination that can limit the company’s legal liability.

But even if the workplace is all set up for the post-pandemic world, workers may not be ready to return. Some employees might be sick themselves—or have family members who were infected—so it’s imperative that companies have a good grasp of the health of their workers, Kaplan says.

Most firms should also give their employees the benefit of the doubt and let them work from home, especially if it’s family related. “You should be a little too flexible rather than being too harsh, especially since lives could be at risk,” says Ron Porter, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry and head of the firm’s Center for Human Resources Excellence. Indeed, erring on the lenient side can help increase—or at least maintain—employee engagement levels.

There’s also the issue of pay. Many organizations that kept their businesses open during the worst parts of the pandemic gave their employees what effectively amounted to hazard pay: bonuses or higher wages to work in environments that may have increased their chances of getting infected. Do those payments go away?

There’s also the looming issue of how to treat new employees. Many existing employees had to take pay cuts, work off-site, or both because of the coronavirus’s destructive impact on the world economy. Simply offering new hires the same packages may risk missing out on exceptional hires. “It’s a big deal right now,” says Bob Wesselkamper, Korn Ferry’s vice chairman of rewards and benefits solutions. “It tests an organization’s return to work strategy.”

Finally, there may be roles that, for a variety of reasons, are done more productively outside the main job site. Companies can use their current experience with off-site workers to learn how to better engage them and train the managers who work with this group, says Melissa Swift, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and the leader of the firm’s digital advisory for North American and global accounts. More importantly, firms will want to create roles that fit how the organization will function in the post-pandemic future. “Agile organizations and leaders will recognize that things are not going to back to what they were before the coronavirus,” Swift says.