COVID and the Workplace

I thought it would be interesting to discuss the impact COVID-19 has had and will have on workplaces. What changes are temporary? How do you feel about returning to work in this time of COVID-19?

First, I want to acknowledge that many people do not have the luxury of choosing how/if they return to work. There are millions of people around the world who have lost their jobs and are struggling to put food on the table. Anyone in the hospitality, retail or other businesses that require in-person work, have little choice but to return to work given so many people are looking for jobs. For most, I think it would be fair to say the scales are tipped in favor of employers.

Thankfully most employers are doing what they can to keep employees safe. Everything from providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to increased cleaning to staggered shifts. There are many stories of companies trying to do right by their employees.

Despite these efforts, however, employees are still worried about returning to work. A Qualtrics study of 2,000 employed Americans in late April revealed that 66% were uncomfortable with going back to work in the current environment. At that time the study was conducted, the number of new daily COVID-19 cases was less than 30,000 – about half of what it is currently. The total case count was still below 1million. If this study were done now, I suspect the % of people uncomfortable would be higher.

This brings us to the story of Epic, the giant EHR software company based in Madison, Wisconsin.

Epic Return to Work

On August 4th, CBS This Morning broke the story about Epic asking all of its employees to return to work at their corporate campus in phases. By November 2nd all employees were expected to be back in-person, including anyone who was immunocompromised. In an email to employees, Judy Faulkner stressed how important it was to the company’s culture that employees come back to the office. That email included a link to a video that showed the numerous precautions and upgrades that had been made to the Epic campus to make it safe.

I watched the almost 7min video and I have to admit it does a good job explaining what areas of the offices that will be cleaned frequently, how the food outlets are changing to take-out only, improvements to the HVAC systems and how to maintain distancing in meetings. Where it gets a little cringe-worthy is near the end when Erv Walter, a developer at Epic talks about how he is back to work despite being immunocompromised. I give kudos to Mr. Walter for trying, but his extra “protection” consists of a “I’m immunocompromised” sign outside of his office and avoiding people who “are sick”.

Epic’s back-to-work approach (the email + video) did not sit well with employees. They felt the mandatory call back by November 4th was at odds with the reality of the pandemic and completely ignored those caring for children or elderly relatives. Many commented as such on the internal company survey. CBS got a hold of that survey and shared some of the quotes:

I have to make the hard choice between do I risk getting sick or do I risk not having paycheck

I’m quite frankly embarrassed to work at a company that values employee and public safety so little.

There will be people who die because of Epic’s insistence on returning to campus

To be fair, I was only able to find negative comments. I’m sure there were some who applauded the company for their efforts to keep employees safe.

What the law says

In an article in Fortune, Jason Ben, a law professor at Stetson University had this to say about an employee refusing to return to work because of the coronavirus:

You’d have to be in imminent danger. An individual has a narrow right to refuse to go work on the basis of what a reasonable person would fear.

The article goes on to say that “In such cases, Bent says, workers can call for an OSHA inspector to decide if a workplace is unsafe, and the law protects them from retaliation if they do so. Bent adds that if a group of employees protest working conditions, federal labor law likewise forbids retaliation.”

However, filing an OSHA complaint is no easy task and many employees don’t believe the effort is worth it.

In most states, there are clear laws that dictate an employer must provide a safe workplace for employees, but COVID-19 is so new, there are no acknowledged standards for what constitutes a workplace that is “safe” for COVID-19.

Permanent Changes

In Silicon Valley, some companies like Twitter and Square, are considering permanent remote work for its employees. The pandemic has shown them the benefits for the company and employees with this type of work arrangement.

In a CNBC article, authors Courtney Connley, Abigail Hess and Jennifer Liu talk about the possibility of office buildings becoming “elaborate conference centers” where collaborative work is done while  focused work happens remotely. The authors also see medical-screening as a permanent addition to the workplace.

Personally, I see the ability to work remotely becoming a hiring challenge for companies. In the war for top talent, having a flexible and reasonable work-from-home policy will be key to attracting employees. Likewise, providing funds or equipment for people to set up home offices will be a desirable “perk”. Monthly high-speed internet has got to be cheaper than catered lunches in a cafeteria right?

Of course, supporting remote workforces will require new technologies – webcams, collaboration software, video conferencing and fully equipped meeting rooms so that voice/video are clear (remember in January how bad it was to dial into a meeting in your office – how you couldn’t really hear what was being said or see the whiteboard – companies will have to solve this post-COVID).

Join us

The next HCLDR weekly tweetchat will be happening Tuesday August 18th at 8:30pm ET (for your local time click here). We will be discussing COVID and the Workplace:

  • T1 Are you comfortable heading back into the office for work? Why or why not?
  • T2 What should employers do to make workplaces safe for staff to return? Is there an obligation to do so?
  • T3 What technologies have you seen or used that can help make return-to-work easier or better?
  • T4 How has COVID-19 forever changed the workplace?

References

“Employees raise safety concerns with return to work plans”, CBS News, 4 August 2020, https://www.cbsnews.com/video/employees-raise-safety-concerns-with-return-to-work-plans/#x,

Farr, Christina. “Epic Systems walks back plans requiring thousands of employees to return to work this week”, CNBC, 10 August 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/08/10/epic-systems-walks-back-plans-requiring-employees-to-return-to-work.html,

“Epic’s Plan for a Safe Return to the Office”, Epic YouTube, 3 August 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=n3sipmh8GIw&feature=youtu.be,

Yahr, Natalie. “Epic makes national news as employees criticize planned return to campus”, The Cap Times, 4 August 2020, https://madison.com/ct/news/local/neighborhoods/epic-makes-national-news-as-employees-criticize-planned-return-to-campus/article_8806d56a-0edb-56dc-95d5-1e6342ec4b8e.html,

Robers, Jeff John. “What the law says about forcing employees back to the office”, Fortune, 27 April 2020, https://fortune.com/2020/04/27/coronavirus-going-back-to-work-reopen-the-economy-office-workers-rights-covid-19/, accessed 16 August 2020

Connley, Courtney and Hess, Abigail and Liu, Jennifer. “13 ways the coronavirus pandemic could forever change the way we work”, CNBC, 29 April 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/29/how-the-coronavirus-pandemic-will-impact-the-future-of-work.html,

Stewart, Jack and Ho, Justin. “Should employers report employees who don’t go back to work?”, Marketplace, 14 May 2020, https://www.marketplace.org/2020/05/14/should-employers-report-employees-who-dont-go-back-to-work/,

“Getting Employees Back To Work During Covid-19: What To Think About From A Legal And Practical Point Of View?”, Gowling WLG, 11 June 2020, https://gowlingwlg.com/en/insights-resources/articles/2020/getting-employees-back-to-work-during-covid-19/,

“COVID-19: Implications for business”, McKinsey & Company, 13 August 2020, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/risk/our-insights/covid-19-implications-for-business,

Lund, Susan et al. “Lives and livelihoods: Assessing the near-term impact of COVID-19 on US workers”, McKinsey & Company, 2 April 2020, https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/lives-and-livelihoods-assessing-the-near-term-impact-of-covid-19-on-us-workers,

Mae Jones, Alexandra. “Do you have the right to refuse to return to work? Employment lawyers weigh in”, CTV News, 7 May 2020, https://www.ctvnews.ca/business/do-you-have-the-right-to-refuse-to-return-to-work-employment-lawyers-weigh-in-1.4930305,

Gagliordi, Natalie. “Survey: Most US employees are uncomfortable returning to the workplace as restrictions ease”, ZD Net, 5 May 2020, https://www.zdnet.com/article/survey-most-us-employees-are-uncomfortable-returning-to-the-workplace-as-restrictions-ease/,

Nielsen, Liesl. “Is America ready to return to work and get back to business?”, Qualtrics, 30 April 2020, https://www.qualtrics.com/blog/covid-19-back-to-work/,

“Previous U.S. COVID-19 Case Data”, CDC, 20 May 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/previouscases.html

Heater, Brian. “Twitter says staff can continue working from home permanently”, Techcrunch, 12 May 2020, https://techcrunch.com/2020/05/12/twitter-says-staff-can-continue-working-from-home-permanently/,

Brownlee, Dana. “Twitter, Square Announce Work From Home Forever Option: What Are The Risks?”, Forbes, 18 May 2020,  https://www.forbes.com/sites/danabrownlee/2020/05/18/twitter-square-announce-work-from-home-forever-optionwhat-are-the-risks/#56e4061a2565,

Image Credit

Photo by Nastuh Abootalebi on Unsplash

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