At some companies, employees are just now beginning to return to the office. Other firms are choosing to adopt a hybrid model, while some will choose to permanently transition to fully remote work.
No matter the route taken, the challenge remains the same: how to strike the right balance between complying with laws and regulations applicable to matters of health and safety while still respecting the privacy rights and concerns of employees.
The first thing companies should do is understand what guidance they must comply with from a county, state, and federal standpoint regarding how to keep their employees safe. “That has to be part of the broader conversation and framework that you create to ensure that there are safety protocols in place,” said Douglas Edwards, senior vice president of workplace experience at health insurance company Humana.
“Whatever decision you make, make sure you’re looking at it through the lens of the associate or the employee. There is a person at the center of all those conversations. That is where the conversation begins. That’s where the conversation ends. We have to keep that front and center in everything we do.”
Douglas Edwards, SVP of Workplace Experience, Humana
Edwards, who took part in a panel discussion Wednesday at Compliance Week’s “Compliance Considerations for the New Workplace” virtual summit, said Humana has created a comprehensive playbook that outlines various protocols for associates, including disclosing whether they’ve been affected by COVID-19 or have been exposed to a high-risk situation. “We have a process around that where we ask associates to share that information,” Edwards said.
When collecting and sharing private health information, “whatever decision you make, make sure you’re looking at it through the lens of the associate or the employee,” Edwards said. “There is a person at the center of all those conversations. That is where the conversation begins. That’s where the conversation ends. We have to keep that front and center in everything we do.”
Just because you can collect such information legally doesn’t mean it’s the right decision from a culture standpoint, Edwards added. “That has to be part of the conversation before you make a decision like that,” he said.
If resources allow, one way to gauge employees’ feelings on the matter is to conduct a poll. “That can help inform your policy,” said Jim Halpert, a partner at DLA Piper who also took part in the panel discussion.
The pandemic will alter the physical workspace in dramatic ways as well. Open-plan workspaces, which used to be highly favored, “may now be looking less attractive,” Halpert noted.
The days of employees physically coming into an office will diminish greatly. Edwards said the workplace of the future will be a place where people come into the office only for specific reasons, like gathering for a meeting, as opposed to coming in every day to get work done.
Even amid the devastation created by the coronavirus pandemic, there are silver linings. In having to go through this trying experience and being forced to shift to remote work environments, many companies have continued to not just operate effectively and efficiently, but some are even performing at levels that exceed their pre-pandemic operations.
What this reveals in part is that employees will perform better when given options as it pertains to work accommodations and flexible work arrangements. “It’s not just good for the employees, it’s good for the business to care about their well-being, their families’ well-being, and their mental well-being as well,” said Stacey Shulman, vice president of the Internet of Things Group and general manager of the health, life sciences and emerging technology group at Intel.
“There are some things within large corporations that we have learned about giving employees options and caring for our associates in a time of need that I hope will continue after the pandemic is under control,” Edwards said. “I hope we don’t lose sight of those things.”
Another benefit: It has put companies’ feet to the fire in thinking about new ways of having to operate, always keeping in the back of their mind the health and safety of employees, customers, and others moving forward while not infringing upon anyone’s right to privacy. In the hospitality industry, for example, some hotels are considering whether they should provide free COVID-19 testing to travelers and, if so, how to do that in a compliant and secure manner, Shulman said. “Those are the discussions we are having right now,” she said.
While sobering to imagine, the COVID-19 pandemic likely won’t be the last. “When we’re having these types of discussions with experts in the Pandemic Alliance, every single one refers to this as the ‘practice pandemic,’” Shulman said.
The Pandemic Alliance, of which Intel is a member, is a coalition that was created by non-profit group XPRIZE in March 2020 with the aim to accelerate solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as future pandemics. “Part of your disaster-recovery plans in the organization should now include pandemic planning,” Shulman added. “If this really is a ‘practice pandemic’ and something worse is coming, it’s incumbent on us to take a serious look at that.”
At the very least, every company should know how it would respond and how to ensure it’s prepared for the next pandemic. Said Edwards, “Hopefully, through some really difficult battle testing, we’re able to say, ‘If and when the next time this comes around, we’re going to be ready for it.’”