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July 14, 2020

HR Strategies for Workplace Culture in the COVID-19 Era

Artemis Health

It’s a new era in Human Resources and Benefits. COVID-19 has impacted just about everything in the workplace, whether it’s health and wellness, leave policies, technology, or whether we’re actually “in the workplace.” HR and Benefits teams are often at the forefront of these changes, helping to craft new policies, communicate with employees, and lead cultural shifts within the company. 

In today’s blog post, we’ll highlight some of the strategies HR leaders have used to help employees adapt to the new work environments created by the novel coronavirus outbreak. Some may work for your organization, while others may not, but each is a fascinating peek around the HR industry and could spark ideas for how your organization can move ahead. 

Spotlight #1: Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) 

With new hotspots in Texas, Arizona, Florida, and other states, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is once again in the news. Nurses unions and physician organizations are reporting that gowns, gloves, and masks are having to be reused in areas with growing coronavirus cases. Unlike the situation in March, these shortages come at a time when many offices have reopened and are also using PPE to welcome employees back to work. 

Restaurants, retail, and other customer-facing businesses are purchasing gloves and masks to help keep employees and customers safe. While the U.S. is a patchwork of state and local regulations regarding mask wearing at different types of businesses, SHRM recently conducted a study with interesting results: 

“A survey of HR professionals by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) in mid-May found that 86 percent required or planned to require employees to wear face masks at work, and 80 percent of that group planned to provide and pay for them.”

A simmering culture war around masks has perhaps made the question of PPE in the workplace more complicated, but it seems that employers are more concerned with the risks to health (and the business) if employees contract COVID-19 at work. Zenefits offers a few steps to help HR/Benefits and Workplace Safety teams implement masks policies. Some recommendations include: 

  • Communicating with employees about the protection masks offer 
  • Instructions for how to wear a mask properly 
  • Guidelines for when/wear masks must be worn (entire shift/just in common areas/in the restroom, etc.)
  • How employees can obtain masks (or whether they’ll be provided) 

Spotlight #2: Comfort Level Signifiers 

Masks and gloves at the office are certainly a cultural shift for workers, and some organizations are taking a different approach. This post, which suggests letting employees signify their comfort level with close contact, has been floating around LinkedIn: 

Image showing wristbands where employees can indicate their level of comfort with physical distancing in the office.

While some see the wisdom in a visual indicator that lets employees avoid awkward conversations about pre-existing conditions, others see a risk of disjointed policies that may make employees uncomfortable. HR and Benefits leaders, particularly those focused on healthcare and wellness programs, are in a tough spot. They spend a lot of time, effort, and money on programs to promote health and enable employees to get the best medical care. They understand their population’s health and risk better than most leadership teams, and they feel a sense of duty to keep employees healthy. 

In fact, our 2019 research study found that improving employee health was third on the list of goals for HR and Benefits teams: 

Chart showing organizational goals benefits leaders are trying to achieve.

Productivity and satisfaction ranked a little higher, but you’ll notice that reducing costs, risk, and absenteeism were also priorities. This suggests that a wristband approach like the one above may not appeal to self-insured employers based on other goals for employee health, but it certainly presents an interesting idea for those who don’t want to mandate PPE or other distancing guidelines for employees. 

Spotlight 3: A/B Schedules 

There’s a reason we call work, “the 9 to 5.” Many office workers are used to showing up Monday through Friday and working a set schedule that changes only during busy seasons or for special projects. In the wake of COVID-19, HR and Benefits teams around the country are rolling out A/B schedules or cohorts of employees who work new hours or days to reduce the number of people in the office at one time. 

A split schedule like this will limit close contact within the office and allow employees to keep their distance. Some organizations may allow employees to choose how many days a week to work from home, while others may institute a stricter schedule with Cohort A coming to the office on the first and third week of the month, and Cohort B at their desks on the second and fourth weeks. The New York Times reports that this type of arrangement is popular with workers. 47% of employees would like to continue working remotely at least part of the time. 

Even with a split schedule, COVID-19 raises some challenges for HR leaders, including what to do about shared spaces. Artemis client LG&E, a utility company in Kentucky, has run into questions about how to reopen safely with their current elevator system. In a recent conference presentation, LG&E’s benefits team shared one data point that has flummoxed them: if each employee took the elevator separately (which they would need to do to maintain 6 feet of distance), it would take 4 hours for everyone to reach their desks in the morning. Workers in Michigan state offices will face the same situation, with elevators limited to one person at a time.

These ideas all apply to traditional office environments, and many large employers have been operating with these types of precautions and cultural shifts during the pandemic. Workers in manufacturing, food, logistics, and other sectors have been wearing masks, distancing, and working new schedules since March. While LG&E’s desk workers have been logging on from home, their frontline utility staff are adapting to working one person per vehicle on new schedules. 

All of these strategies will require cultural adaptations for employers and employees. HR and Benefits teams are often at the center of cultural shifts at the workplace, and they’ll need to carefully consider what will work for their organization that considers both employee health and employee comfort. What strategies will your business use as they consider returning to the office? 

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