Covid-19 has thrown CEOs a curve ball no one ever anticipated and challenged leadership capabilities in unprecedented ways. In countries around the globe, governments and businesses are struggling with decision making, planning and strategy execution.
While every possible scenario cannot be planned for, one of the great benefits of thoughtful planning is that the exercise engages people, gets them thinking and creates a flexible mindset among your team. The result is that everyone is in a better position to react thoughtfully and deliberately, even to events that may be different than what you anticipated.
In private equity, one of the most important things we do is to recognize great leaders and help them maximize the potential of the companies they run. Following are some of the recommendations we have given our portfolio company CEOs about what to do as they prepare to return to the workplace (RTW). While much of the information that follows applies universally across industries, these are guidelines only. All final plans and decisions should be reviewed with experts and counsel.
• Solicit input from your employees about their RTW concerns before finalizing your plan. This provides a way to engage employees, recognize the value of their opinions and gain useful suggestions. However, make sure any communication clarifies that:
- The request is for the workforce in general and individual-specific situations should be the basis of one-on-one conversations
- The return to work is governed by state and local rules and regulations that the company must abide by, and thus suggestions that conflict with these rules cannot be followed
- While the input is important, not all suggestions may make it to the final Final decision-making rests with the company’s management.
• Provide a companywide letter about the RTW plan specifics, but avoid asking employees to sign a notice or waiver agreeing to return to work. Putting a legal form in front of employees may cause negative reactions and stoke fears unnecessarily. A letter explaining how the company will abide by relevant regulations and outlining expectations has the benefit of being clear with employees as a whole and providing a record of communication.
• Before offering or mandating Covid virus or antibody testing or screening, consult with experts and legal counsel. This issue gets into ADA law about whether temperature or other testing is a business necessity. In general, testing can only be required if there is a reason to believe someone is symptomatic. Further, a practical consideration is frequency. Just because a person tests negative for the virus on one day, does not mean they can’t contract the virus later that same day. Antibody tests are not a panacea either as they have generated many false positives.
• When appropriate, offer flexibility to those employees who cannot return to work because of other Covid-caused obligations, i.e. employees with young children if schools or day care remain closed. There is a legal standard of “Reasonable Accommodation” that may be invoked to require employer flexibility. The company would need to show that the job performance quality is demonstrably impaired by the lack of the employee’s presence. If it does require presence back in the office, then offer any employees — on the job more than 30 days — the choice to return to work or accept the Family First benefit, which allows for up to 12 weeks of absence due to a COVID-related circumstance.
• Clearly communicate your plan to employees in advance about what is going to happen, for which groups of employees, and why the decisions have been made in the best interests of company performance. Given the “hybrid work environment” scenario, this type of issue will arise. The upfront declaration of reasoning and intent provide a documented context for the difference in handling of any groups or individuals.
Recognizing that the rules and timing are still fluid, there are some practical steps that should be taken right away.
• Changes to Physical layout: You should start planning for physical changes to accommodate social distancing as those we see in “essential businesses” today. Items that may be required in the short term could include:
- Desk / workstation separation of at least six feet
- Limits to meeting attendance in conference rooms or repurposing conferences rooms if needed for office space
- Limits to use of the common areas
- Demarcation (i.e. taping the floors) to indicate acceptable distances from desks, reception areas and public areas
- Minimizing “touch requirement” – Doors open, touchpads removed
Additionally, some companies are staggering break periods and lunch hours to limit the number of people who might otherwise congregate during those times.
• Needed Health and Safety Materials: Most employers recognize they would be well served to plan for having similar types of health and safety materials as those we see in “essential businesses” today. Generally, a landlord will only be responsible for items that are shared by all tenants, lobby, elevators, common rest rooms, etc. The employer/tenant will be responsible for items within the office itself, which will likely include:
- Alcohol-based hand sanitizer
- Anti-bacterial soap
- Surgical-style gloves
- Physical barriers to the extent employees interact with the general public
- Possibly face masks
As a planning guide, refer to the CDC guidelines currently available that list everything required today for an “essential business”. Note that if these items are required by local law, and the employer chooses NOT to supply them, the employee may be within their rights to ask for re-imbursement if they purchase them on their own
Recognizing that the rules and timing is still fluid, there are some practical steps that should be started right away.
• Arrange for appropriate employment and jurisdictional expertise, if not already secured
• Start Workforce Planning:
- Triage the job types into “in office, dual (office and/or remote), remote only”
- Identify the “phases” of work that should move back to the offices
- Revisit job descriptions to make sure essential “non office” duties are listed (for travel, customer visits, etc.)
• Start Facility Planning, per the CDC guidelines for essential businesses:
- Order health and safety supplies as there is a long lead time on these items
- Plan out any physical configuration changes
- Contact landlord to understand any specific lease requirements
• Decide on Employee Communication approach:
- Employee Survey (do/don’t do/when)
- Lay out RTW plan and reasoning communication plan
Most importantly, do not rush this process. Eager as many of us are to get back to “normal,” we see no general advantage in leading the charge, nor a disadvantage in being a follower. Unless specific business conditions mandate urgent action, our general guidance is to proceed cautiously and thoughtfully, even if that means trailing what is “allowable” under local guidelines by a few weeks. As counterintuitive as it sounds, in this case the best leadership advice you can give your people might be to follow.