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Dilemma of the Month: How You Can Help Your Workers Return

Back Article Aug 6, 2020 By Suzanne Lucas

During the coronavirus pandemic, my employees have all worked remotely. When restrictions are eased, how should I respond to those who want to continue to work remotely? And what can I do to help ease their concerns as they do return?

This story is part of our August 2020 Big Fix issue. To subscribe, click here.

First, my bias: I’ve worked from home either exclusively or alternating with days in the office for the past 16 years. So I’m a big proponent of working remotely. 

Here’s my other bias: What’s best for company unity and team building is when team members know each other as human beings. It’s easy to argue and complain about faceless people on the internet. If you’re not careful, team members who don’t know each other outside of instant messaging and the occasional video meeting may start to see each other as random Twitter feeds and not as people with feelings and expertise.

So, even though I love working at home, I see the value in having people work together in an office. You can build a team without being together, but it is more complicated. Not everyone does a good job when they work from home, and not everyone has the space and amenities necessary to do quality work for the long term.

Now to your question about people who want to continue working remotely. How about letting them?

If your employees are happy at home, productive at home and will not cause problems for the rest of the team by being at home, there’s not a good reason to force them into the office. And they’ve got the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on their side. 

When an employee requests it, don’t say no without an explanation. If you think there is a problem with them staying home, define the problem. Here are some sample situations that would need to be addressed with your employee.

  • Since you’ve been working at home, your performance has slipped. 
  • Working at home was fine in an emergency, but it’s taking us twice as long to get our projects approved with everyone working remotely.
  • Our clients strongly prefer face-to-face meetings.
  • You have been difficult to reach when you’re working at home.
  • We were mostly building plans during the shutdown, but now that we’re reopening, we need to execute those plans, and you need to be in the office for that.

Let your employees come up with a solution to the problem. They may not be able to, and, as the boss, you can require someone to work in the office. Not everyone is suited for work at home, even if it’s possible to do the job at home.

Some solutions may include having the employee work one or two days from home and the rest in the office, or creating a flexible schedule. Listen to your employees’ ideas.

If they genuinely do need to come into the office and are anxious about doing so because of the health hazards it poses, it’s up to you to implement safety measures to protect your staff and help relieve some of those fears.

Make sure you are following all federal, state and local guidelines. Do your best, communicate what you are doing to your employees and ask them to let you know if you can do better. Make sure work stations are far enough apart for social distancing. Consider getting rid of open-office situations (you can add barriers to help reduce germ transmission), make sure you have plenty of sanitizer and soap, and use masks as recommended by the CDC.

As long as the CDC and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission classify COVID-19 as a “direct threat,” you can ask your employees to undergo testing. This can include daily temperature checks or having employees certify daily that they don’t have symptoms. While this does not guarantee that no one is infected (they could be asymptomatic), it can help people feel more comfortable about coming into the office. Also, make it clear that anyone who is sick should go home and stay there until their doctor says it is OK to return.

Ask your employees what will make them feel comfortable, and listen to them. Giving them each their own corner office won’t be possible, but making sure there is distance between them is possible. Providing daily COVID-19 testing isn’t practical, but providing disinfecting wipes so people can clean their work space and equipment can easily be done.

It may be a great time to evaluate how your company operates. Working from home may be in your company’s best interest.

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