When COVID-19 hit last year and employees were forced to work from home, employers quickly learned that their staff could continue to be productive even when they weren’t sitting in the same office. Now, companies are faced with the decision of re-entry, hybrid work and the continued uncertainty of COVID-19.
But where does that leave mid-sized companies and startups?
Meet Kate Velasquez, Director of Human Resources at ASG. Kate is in charge of leading, developing and coordinating the policies and activities of the HR team at ASG.
Kate and her team also oversee all aspects of HR across the three core components of our business: diligence, onboarding and the operating of our companies. They partner closely with ASG’s operating CEOs, HR and Finance teams to build HR infrastructure that ensures we are running efficient and compliant teams, and help design initiatives that support a culture of PeopleFirst.
ASG companies vary in size, culture and complexity - we asked Kate how she and her team approached supporting ASG and its operating companies in navigating re-entry to the office.
What have been the most challenging aspects of bringing employees back into the workplace?
One of the bigger challenges is and will continue to be the uncertainty of COVID-19, and the lack of clarity on when the right time to bring people back is. In my opinion, there isn’t a perfect time, and organizations need to get comfortable with risk management based on their headcount, location and potential for exposure to COVID-19.
Secondly, the inconsistencies of local, state and federal mandates for employers and their employees makes compliance challenging and cumbersome, as you need to juggle multiple balls at the same time.
Lastly, balancing the needs of individual employees against the needs/desires of a company to be in person (or not) is real, especially for the ASG community which prides itself on putting people first. Well-intentioned flexibility can backfire if you haven’t fully thought through where you need people to net-out long term, and it can be difficult to unwind.
What strategies have been the most helpful in bringing employees back into the office?
Open and transparent two-way communication with employees is the best thing organizations can do to ensure no stone is left unturned. When in doubt, over communicating is far better than under communicating. Some tips include:
- Clearly establish and communicate workplace norms and expectations so that everyone is clear on where they will have flexibility, and where there will be expectations to be in person (if applicable).
- Be clear on timing and give as much advance notice as possible for major changes.
- Use whatever cadence and/or format that is most consistent with your other major company announcements. At ASG, we created a Google slides deck that has been updated over time that states our core truths and philosophy around returning to the office, expectations, safety procedures and more.
For HR leaders, work with trusted partners on how to apply nebulous regulations/mandates (and frequent changes) to your specific business, and distill things down into realistic ways of operating.
Additionally, use your network and source ideas/best practices from others. We’re lucky to have this built into the way we do business at ASG, and it’s a huge win. If you need help, check out some online resources as well.
Last, just doing the thing! There is no perfect time. Make a plan, execute it, and acknowledge that it will adjust/evolve over time (like COVID). As the common phrase suggests: plan for the best, and prepare for the worst.
What questions and concerns should leadership discuss?
Before answering any questions, reflect on learnings from the past year - what went well, and what didn’t go well? Involve employees in these conversations through 1:1s and source feedback (through tools like Culture Amp or a Google Form). Also, decide and ensure if having a distributed workforce is sustainable for your business (from payroll/tax compliance to the potential culture and innovation impact).
Here are some questions you’ll want to ask yourself and the leadership team:
- What type of company culture/precedent do you want to set going forward as it relates to workplace norms and ways of operating?
- Is the office equipped to meet local safety requirements, including plans for if/when a COVID occurrence happens in the office?
- Who will own workplace safety and the development of associated procedures (especially in the absence of HR/office management)? Does your building have specific requirements that differ from company policy?
- Will you mandate or recommend vaccines? If mandating, have a clearly written policy reviewed by HR or legal, inclusive of an accommodation procedure for opting out.
- Are there other potential accommodations the company will need to consider based on the return to office plan?
- Timing - when will you return? Phased approach or all at once?
While there may be more nuanced questions that come from the feedback you gathered, this is a good start in pointing you towards the right direction.
How can small and mid-sized companies put safety first?
Put a plan in place that addresses all potential exposures to COVID-19, train employees and management and keep the plan current over time. Stay informed on the latest guidelines for employers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and workplace safety requirements from Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and local ordinances/branches. The CDC and SHRM have great checklists you can easily amend to be applicable to the nature of your business.
Lastly, recommend vaccines and provide educational resources from legitimate sources often to inform employees about vaccines and COVID-19. Here are some great resources from SHRM and the World Health Organization (WHO) you can start with.