Jane Billbe - SVP Operations and Organizational Health, Seattle Metro Chamber
Christine Martin, Partner and Co-Founder, Valtas Group
As we began to prepare this posting earlier this summer, COVID was fading, vaccines were rising, and reopening in September 2021 seemed to be the focus for many of our clients and community partners. What a difference a month can make! The Delta variant and all of the uncertainty have led to significant delays in reopening plans for most organizations. It seems like each day there is new information for leaders to consider as they work to keep their staff, clients, and community safe while delivering on their mission. Our Reopening “GPS” continues to be “recalculating our route” with no one best path forward, but we hope these thoughts are helpful as you consider strategies for your organization.
Keep Your Plans Flexible
Ultimately, when we are considering Return to Office planning, it’s striking the right balance for your organization and workforce to ensure you can continue to succeed and achieve your goals. There is no one right answer, and the best way to mitigate risk and reduce barriers is to evaluate your organization’s needs and have very clear reasoning for the decisions you are making.
Most businesses are thinking about reopening in Phases - we’ve been hearing the term “dial not switch” for several months, but it’s good guidance to think about being able to scale up (i.e., more people, more flexible) or scale back (more remote, more safety precautions) as circumstances change. Build flexibility into your plans for new virus variants (delta and lambda currently) and involve your employees in your planning. This might involve employee surveys, workgroups that help align your policies, practice, and culture.
We have all learned that much more can be done via virtual connection than we ever thought possible back in the dark ages of 2019. Pivoting fundraising events, board retreats, and hiring to remote channels may need to continue into 2022.
Know the Rules of the Road
The first step in considering your Return to Office plan is to consider the regulatory measures and mandates, which will drive policies, processes, and procedures. COVID-19 a recognized workplace hazard and employers will continue to be federally required to maintain a safe and healthy workplace. What that means, and your legal duty to your employee’s safety varies based on the work setting, type of work, population/clients served, etc. In Washington State L&I continues to regulate workplace safety requirements.
Recent policy changes have moved us back to masking being required in most indoor settings, but even without mandates, many employers expect to maintain masking policies indefinitely. Other requirements include logging vaccination status if employees are to go without a mask, Unvaccinated or undocumented need to remain masked and socially distanced
Mandatory COVID-19 vaccines have become more widespread, with many employers asking what they can do if workers refuse. Some employers are releasing staff who won't take the vaccine and others are requiring unvaccinated employees to submit to weekly testing and take other safety precautions.
It's important to consider your organization’s culture and weigh the pros of mandating the vaccine against the potential cons to the culture and morale of your employees. If you already have a high percentage of vaccinated employees, you may be able to use incentives or other methods without having to put a mandate in place. Mandates also come with the need to reasonably accommodate employees who are unable to get the vaccine due to medical or religious reasons.
The EEOC has weighed in with guidance that answers some workplace vaccination questions. The agency said that discrimination laws don't prohibit employers from requiring all employees who physically enter the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19. Employers that encourage or require vaccinations, however, must comply with a number of workplace laws - if you decide this is the right policy for your organization, we recommend you review applicable guidance with an attorney.
Consider Who is Along for the Ride
Employers have to ensure their workplaces are as safe as they can be. Employees, volunteers, clients being served, and community members may have fears of returning to business as usual; preparing for and communicating how safety is a top priority will allay fears and increase commitment to your business.
Employers may encounter staff who are hesitant about returning to in-person work due to concerns about COVID-19 and may cite this reason, among others, for not returning to in-person work. If your staff have a low overall vaccination rate and are working with populations where vaccination levels are also low and transmission is more likely, you will want to consider requiring staff to wear masks while offsite/serving clients.
Another tool to consider is surveying clients or partners asking for their practices/site requirements around masking and requiring employees to follow on-site/client protocols for masking and social distancing. Remote employees may need to follow the protocols for the communities they serve (i.e., working in a school, healthcare, or other settings).
Sharing Your Trip Plan
Knowing the business reasons why you are asking employees to return to the office will be critically important not only in communicating to your team but also in setting expectations and managing performance. Be sure to be very clear on what goals returning to the office achieves that remote or hybrid work does not.
Most employees will likely expect there to be changes in policies, protocols, and even the physical workspace following the pandemic shutdown. It’s important to maintain timely and frequent communication with employees about policy and design changes. Even if the communication is a “non-update update”, it’s important to keep in touch with your employees. Also, consider giving employees as much advance notice as possible when changing expectations and allow for practice runs and time for schedule and routine changes that may be necessary.
Ask for input from staff to help inform your approach. Gather your leadership team or trusted resources and assess what’s been working and what hasn’t with remote and/or hybrid work. Clarify why you are bringing people back - - is it to oversee or increase productivity and accountability? To foster a sense of collaboration that’s been lost in remote work?
Consider and share how your physical space may need to be adjusted to reduce transmission, increase employee’s sense of security, and also adjust to new working styles/expectations.
Stop and Ask for Directions
New information is being published daily but there are a few local resources that have done a good job of aggregating information.
In addition to information coming from your law firm and/or benefits or HR services firm, there are a few sources we’d recommend:
About the Authors:
Jane Billbe is the SVP of Operations & Organizational Health of the Seattle Metro Chamber and President of Seattle SHRM. Jane is an empathic leader and has served Chamber staff and members as they have navigated the changing landscape of the pandemic over the past 18 months. The Chamber is a former client of Valtas Group.
Christine Martin is a Partner and co-founder at Valtas Group and after two decades in HR leadership roles, considers herself a “recovering HR executive” with a focus and commitment to building leadership capacity for the nonprofit sector.
About Valtas Group
Valtas Group works as Interim Executive Directors, supporting organizations in times of transition and helps organizations navigate uncertainty during leadership change.
Valtas Group also leads the search process in partnership with the board and staff leadership, as consultants for recruiting and search to support organizations identify the ideal Executive Director or leader.
Valtas Group partners with board members and senior nonprofit leaders on a variety of strategic consulting assignments. Valtas Group has a variety of comprehensive resources to guide your transition needs. Contact us to learn about executive interim and placement services.
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