Bringing Employees Back to the Post COVID-19 Workplace

post COVID-19 workplace

There is a joke post floating around on Facebook that goes on and on about the new rules – don’t go out, but go out if you have to; wash your food packaging but no need to wash your food packaging; don’t visit anyone unless you need to visit someone. On and on it goes. This virus is not funny in any way, but the joke is based on the fact that there is a tremendous amount of confusion about the best course of action to take to stay personally safe. So, what’s to come for the post-COVID-19 workplace? What will it look like when employees are able to re-enter their organizations?

For employers, there is even more confusion and a critical emotion to address: employee fear. As employees return to work, they fear catching the virus and reductions in benefits due to business finances. They fear being unable to support their family, getting work done under new workplace rules, or having access to the appropriate Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). Employees are scared about the potential permanent workforce reductions if customers do not return in full force, and accomplishing work with a reduced staff.

At Union Proof, we know this fact: Unions thrive on fear, and there are indications they’re going to use the COVID-19 related fears to step up their efforts to gain new members. It could either be by creating additional bargaining units within a company or unionizing the workforce in a currently union-free business.

Employers have many fears too. They fear someone will come to work and get seriously ill with COVID-19 and perhaps spread it throughout the workforce. Tyson Foods has experienced several virus outbreaks, like the one at its pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, where almost 200 employees tested positive.

Another fear is being able to manage conflicting messages from government regulators. For example, company leaders are concerned as to whether taking employee temperatures as they enter the workplace or while working, is legal under HIPPA law in the U.S. and the Charter of Rights in Canada. Temperature is considered medical data and therefore, protected information, so employers receive mixed signals in their respective states. 

Business leaders worry they have lost talented employees due to layoffs. They fear the loss of customers and even suppliers.

Employers also wonder: What are labor unions going to do?

Adapting to the Conditions

Each business has unique needs that require it to adapt to challenges in a way that causes minimal disruption to business continuity while protecting the safety of employees. Dealing with the COVID-19 virus is the most current challenge, forcing companies to change Human Resources policies, work procedures, and the way they do business in many cases.

We interviewed a variety of clients and friends to learn how they’ve adapted up to this point and, more importantly, their plans for the future as they bring employees back into the workplace. Each one had a flexible approach, routinely responding to changing CDC and other government guidelines and regulations and striving to keep employees safe.

Here’s what they shared:

A unionized aerospace contractor was particularly challenged by the fact employees sometimes must work closely together in order to get the work done. The company also has employees working on military bases and has no control over workspace arrangements. In response, the aerospace company adjusted on the fly, so to speak. For example, they used a parachute repair shop to make masks and worked with local distilleries to mix hand sanitizers. The company has provided meals and PPE, and their medical provider agreed to waive all employee deductibles and co-pays for COVID-related illnesses.

Best Buy was able to quickly adapt, as they’ve established preparedness plans for natural disasters such as hurricanes. John Reyes, Senior Manager of Employee and Labor Relations for Best Buy shared that many employees have expressed appreciation for how Best Buy is handling the crisis and their employment. They have maintained their benefits, and the company is communicating well. “I’m most proud of the fact that we said ‘how do we keep our people safe?’ first, and then addressed the revenue side of the crisis,” said Reyes.

Best Buy sees their biggest opportunity in the communication piece of their strategy, “we need to continue to communicate well and be very open about those communications.” said Reyes. “We can’t just tell an employee “I need you to do this,” we need to provide direction, and that’s from our upper-level executives on down. Our ground leaders have had to grow and connect with their teams.” Reyes further explained that as they bring workers back, they know that employee uncertainty leads to issues. They want to be sure to communicate clearly and often. As an organization, they don’t want employees wondering, supposing, or drawing conclusions that may or may not be accurate.

A company that provides vegetation and line clearance services and has 200 different collective bargaining agreements shared with us that the unions want employees furloughed so they can collect unemployment, but the company is contesting it. Workers are unhappy with the unions’ approach -they want to keep their jobs and their paychecks, not collect unemployment.

Communication has been in the form of memos to frontline workers who then ensure the information is delivered in English and Spanish. The company pays well and has excellent benefits. 

Trey Bryan, Labor Relations Manager at U-Haul, said the company took many steps to protect its employees, including offering tele-health services, utilizing emails, their Facebook Page and inbox feature of the HRIS system; installing Plexiglas for customer-facing interactions and switching to industrial-strength cleansers in the rental.

“The best thing we have is the phenomenal leadership from our CEO,” said U-Haul’s Labor Relations Manager, Trey Bryan, “including lots of direct communication that spoke directly to everyone’s fear of the unknown.” The CEO did a series of videos discussing how the company was addressing the crisis, and emailed them to leaders and posted on the company intranet. 

A community medical center has continued operating with 95 percent of its staff. The trauma center has focused on internal communication via a resource page on the intranet, emails, and training videos for physicians, managers, and employees. A mobile-friendly internal communication platform was purchased and is being piloted to communicate with nurses and other staff who are always on the move. 

Their communication department works closely with HR, which approves all messages. There is a strong presence on social media, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram, and the company is using the sites for posting public-facing messages and delivering employee accolades to keep staff members motivated and engaged. To promote employee retention and a high level of employee engagement, the medical center offers many employee resources that include Credible Mind wellbeing resources, counseling services, Errand solutions, massages, discounts, and more. 

The medical center representative we spoke with explained that unions have been rallying around healthcare companies that have had difficulty providing proper PPE. They are promoting walkouts, pickets, and protests.

Post COVID-19 is the Perfect Storm for Unions

Some of the clients interviewed are unionized, and some are union-free, but most have a common belief. They believe union activity will substantially increase over the next few months. Though it has been on a backburner temporarily, it’s important to remember that unions are also encouraged by the Democratic party’s support and the upcoming Presidential election. The virus, the election, and employee fears create a perfect storm for union activity.

The unions are assessing companies in terms of how they performed so far and what they can leverage to pressure employers to take action, i.e., hazard pay, new safety equipment, adjusted work schedules, increased benefits, and so on. Businesses that are already unionized will face increased organizing as unions coalesce issues around COVID-19 to convince employees they have a common cause and need a unified front.

Quite frankly, the COVID-19 virus crisis has created the perfect platform for unions. Each business needs to create a strategy/game plan for addressing union activity in specific locations. Train leaders on what to look for, what to do, and who to alert when there is suspension or detection of union activity.

Using Communication and Technology for Employee Safety

Besides sharing the steps they have already taken in response to the COVID-19 virus crisis, Projections’ clients generously shared their planned employee acclimation steps for the post-COVID 19 workplace. Their steps address the fears of employees and organizational leaders and hopefully will stop unions from agitating the workforce during this period of change.

Utilizing employee communication best practices and using technology are two critical strategies for bringing workers back into a work routine.

Employee Communication Tips

Communication is at the heart of employee engagement and now is the time to ensure communication during a crisis is as precise and effective as possible. There is so much uncertainty in this uncharted territory, and workers need their employers to add as much certainty as possible into their lives. 

Following are some of the ways businesses can strengthen their communication with employees as their furloughed, laid off, and/or remote workers return to the physical workplace or as they continue to communicate with employees who were able to continue employment and their normal work routines. 

  • Send a personal letter to each employee’s home address, letting individuals know the company has established safety protocols and cares about the health and wellbeing of employees and their families.
  • Communicate the specifics of the return to work for furloughed and laid-off employees. Employees were either furloughed (expectation of a return to work), laid off (no expectation but still hopeful of re-hire), or temporarily doing remote work. You can treat the furloughed and laid-off workers like they are new employees, meaning they need an employment offer and details on when they can return to work, terms of employment, benefits, schedule, and new work expectations if any.
  • Communicate the changes all returning, and current workers must adhere to concerning safety rules, procedures for entering the workplace, wearing protective items, social distancing, wearing specialized technology, willingness to have temperature taken, etc.
  • Communicate everything the business is doing to keep employees safe, i.e., staggering shifts, establishing rules for customer interactions, limiting the number of customers allowed in a building at one time, cleaning and disinfecting procedures established, etc.
  • Develop and post online videos to communicate specific industry and government standards and how the company is striving to adhere to them. This is important because your employees need to know the company is staying on top of ever-changing guidelines. Be sure to keep the videos updated as new guidelines emerge.
  • Establish an employee discussion board so employees can ask questions and express opinions and get feedback from co-workers and management. Listening to your employees in any form of communication that works best is crucial to keeping them engaged.
  • Given the specific workforce characteristics, use the communication procedures that are most likely to reach all employees, i.e., inform frontline leaders first who then deliver information to employees; communicate directly with employees via a website, social media, videos, virtual meetings, etc.
  • Keep customers and the public informed with a public website, which ensures delivery of a consistent message about keeping employees safe, operational rules, cleaning protocols, etc.
  • Address employees’ fears of being unsafe on the job by offering specific courses of action, if applicable, i.e., allow a short-term unpaid Leave of Absence until things settle down. 
  • Open a hotline that employees can call 24/7.
  • Hold virtual town hall meetings with top executives.
  • Provide regular updates to frontline leader communications, including websites, on ongoing union-related developments, reinforcing rules of engagement with unions, spotting signs of union activity, and legal communication with employees.

As one Projections client said, “we must communicate well now and continue to communicate with transparency as people return to work.” Instead of telling people what to do, provide direction that begins at the top and flows down. It’s important to have a unified, consistent, and supportive leadership voice. Don’t leave employees wondering, guessing, assuming, or drawing their own conclusions. 

Technology

Beyond the internet, technology will play a big role in many companies in keeping employees safe. Forehead thermometers are already in widespread use.

Amazon has installed thermal cameras in six of its warehouses so far and will add thermal cameras at employee entrances of its Whole Foods stores. The cameras will detect heat emissions in people as they enter the building and while working. If a camera flags an employee, a second forehead thermometer check will get an exact temperature.

The Ford Motor Company is planning on providing vibrating proximity alert watch-like wearables to help employees maintain safe distances. When employees come within six feet of each other, the wearable vibrates and delivers a color-coded warning. Ford is also planning on using a thermal imaging scan to detect a fever as employees enter the workplace.

Some Projections clients require employees to complete a daily online survey of their health and any contact made with someone who may have or does have COVID-19. Technologies mentioned earlier include video or audio-conferencing meetings and using online channels for collaborative projects like Google Docs.

One day (hopefully soon), a wide availability of an inexpensive, rapid result COVID-19 virus tests will be available to administer to employees. 

You can take advantage of employee access to the internet or intranet and post resource pages that provide relevant COVID-19 information. One website can be for employees and one for managers and supervisors. For all employees, include links to external authoritative websites, like Johns Hopkins University, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the county health department, and the World Health Organization. 

variety of communication strategies can be deployed because connecting with as many people as possible is crucial. Use emails, a mobile-friendly internal communication platform, or mobile-friendly web-based information, social media, text messages, intranets, emails, hotlines, and mail.

Looking Ahead For the Post COVID-19 Workplace

Businesses are at different stages of preparation for re-opening or restoring the workforce. The following is a list of items you can consider. Many of these items were suggestions from Projections’ clients.

  • Post video addresses from upper management, discussing all actions concerning COVID-19. What we’ve done, what we are doing, what we will do for the future.
  • Decide what installations must occur to protect workers; i.e., plexiglass partitions, sanitation stations, glove and face mask dispensers, directional “X” on the floors, special trash bins for potentially contaminated materials, etc.
  • Decide what Personal Protection Equipment will be provided to employees, i.e., masks, gloves, suits, plastic face shields, etc.
  • Decide what areas need to be addressed, like plant cafeterias, break time courtyards, or any other area not critical to operations.
  • Develop a phased approach to bringing employees back, i.e.; some employees return the first part of May and others the second half.
  • If unionized, work with the union on safety issues, equipment, work schedules, etc. so the union takes ownership of the company’s efforts. Ford and the UAW, for example, are exploring ideas together to keep people safe.
  • Identify the specific resources that employees can access now and upon return to work, such as mental health counseling services and health and wellness programs.
  • Strengthen the employee communication system to ensure employees have a voice. There will be employee concerns, and you want them to tell your supervisors first, rather than a union.
  • Establish safety procedures for the reintroduction of typical business services, such as in-home repair services. Develop what-if scenarios (ideal topics for videos).
  • Review and change policies as necessary for activities like travel and virtual meetings.
  • Prepare a COVID-19 screening questionnaire for employees that takes them through the steps of identifying their vulnerability to the virus and whether they should enter the workplace or leave. The questions can include:
  • Are you currently sick with symptoms like cough, fever, shortness of breath, sore throat?
  • Have you traveled internationally in the past 14 days?
  • Have you had close personal contact with anyone with a positive COVID-19 diagnosis in the past 14 days?
  • Is your temperature below 100 degrees F?
  • Have you traveled in the U.S. to a high-risk area?

Manager and supervisor training is crucial for a smooth return to work. These are the people directly tasked with helping the company contain the coronavirus and responding to employee concerns or needs. The supervisors must communicate and enforce disease-management policies and safety measures. How the supervisor communicates with and engages employees will have a direct impact on the ability of unions to push an agenda.

Prepare for Eager Unions

If you’ve got CBA’s in place, keep the union(s) informed of the measures your company has taken. Future union bargaining agreement negotiations will be impacted by what the company did in the past and what it does moving forward. It is a balancing act again. Being generous now about things like work schedules and benefits could lead to unions asking for that generosity to continue in one or more ways. It’s essential to identify changes to Human Resources policies and procedures directly related to the COVID-19 clearly.

The companies that demonstrate empathy, backed up with action during the coronavirus crisis, are still likely to face union activity because this is an opportunity for unions to find new members. But they are in a better position to make the case to employees that staying union-free remains important, and the union cannot offer anything beyond what the employer is delivering.

Ask your workers what they need to feel safe. If you ask before the unions, you are way ahead in employee engagement. Though the COVID-19 virus has wreaked havoc in the economy, it is important to stay positive and to union proof the business. Even businesses already unionized will want to minimize the potential for aggressive unions to agitate the workforce or demand new concessions by using COVID-19 virus impacts.

Future Steps for Your Post COVID-19 Workplace

This crisis is making employees and employers fearful, but the fear is manageable with leadership and employee training and communication, and business-specific strategies to address the issues attracting unions. If you need a custom solution for union avoidance strategies, or specific training for your leaders, we’d love to support you!

LaborWise Leadership

About the author

Jennifer Orechwa

In over 25 years of helping companies connect with their employees, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a UnionProof culture. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.

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