As Lockdowns are Lifted, Can the Workforce Return Safely?

This week, state governments are allowing more nonessential businesses to reopen. Now, it is the CEO’s call on who should stay away — and who should come in. A new report by Korn Ferry explores how businesses can return and operate in a safe, responsible way. Carol Crossdale of CrossdalePaul weighs in.

May 19, 2020 – Beginning this week, many parts of the world, including many states in the U.S. and entire 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 off-site?” 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, according to a new report from Korn Ferry.

There is plenty of skittishness among employees about whether the workplace — or the commute to it — is safe and sanitary, said Korn Ferry. Workers don’t want to leave their kids alone either. At the same time, many executives are unsure which employees to bring back on-site. “No one has a playbook yet,” said Dan Kaplan, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who works with human resources executives.


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In most cases, Korn Ferry said, companies can set their own rules about where their people work. For the pandemic, “the U.S. 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,” the search firm said. “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 U.S., they could file a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.”

New Rules

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, said Korn Ferry.

Related: Executive Recruiters Roll Up Their Sleeves as COVID-19 Crisis Unfolds

“But even if the workplace is all set up for the post-pandemic world, workers may not be ready to return,” Mr. Kaplan said. “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.”

Most companies should also give their employees the benefit of the doubt and let them work from home, especially if the reason is family related. “You should be a little too flexible rather than being too harsh, especially since lives could be at risk,” said 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.”


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There’s also the issue of pay. Many organizations that kept their businesses open during the worst 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, said Korn Ferry. Do those payments go away?

Related: Conducting Executive Searches During a Pandemic

Korn Ferry also pointed to 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,” said Bob Wesselkamper, Korn Ferry’s vice chairman of rewards and benefits solutions. “It tests an organization’s return to work strategy.”

Frequently Adjusting

Finally, there may be roles that, for a variety of reasons, are performed 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,” said 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,” Ms. Swift said.

Carol Crossdale, of boutique legal recruiting firm CrossdalePaul, weighed in on the topic: “One thing that employers can count on, as they begin bringing employees back to work, is that the considerations for returning to work will not be fixed.  Instead, employers will need to be constantly re-evaluating as the terrain shifts,” she said. “Unlike other previous risks where an employer could come up with a comprehensive plan and then continue to stick to the plan over time, with COVID-19, employers will need to frequently adjust their practices in light of rapidly changing information about the coronavirus, and constantly changing information about the timing and scale of outbreaks and hot spots.”

Related: Leveraging Existing Response Plans to Tackle COVID-19

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor  – Hunt Scanlon Media

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