If there is anything that we learned from isolation both forced and voluntary — it is the need to feel that we still belong, we still matter, and our opinions are still golden. We hear plenty enough about studies that reveal upticks in productivity during lock-downs based on measures that include shorter wait for customer support, faster order fulfillment, faster idea generation, sales growth, and a much shorter turnaround time in generating or editing presentation decks. It was as if, all of the very sudden workers turned into a collective Batman. Hidden deep within bat-caves, clandestinely doing great deeds behind the scene.
But these studies covered a short time period, did not cover all types of businesses in every industry, and did not look at other meaningful productivity measures. The study also did not explore the other important part of the equation ...the psychological condition under which employees must perform such work while in isolation.
Sure, workers are already home, nice right? Not so fast. The housebound hero is actually more stressed now than ever before. Concerns are abound, and they are brought about by increased expectations to deliver in double-time and be worthy of "home-working" — while caring for loved ones who succumbed to the virus (or they, themselves recovering) or just simply trying to stay safe while dealing with a plethora of home-related distractions.
With that said, as businesses attempt to reopen and begin normal operations, we have to note that concerns over the pandemic's second wave that can lead to another closure mandates is very high. According to the US Chamber of Commerce, two-thirds of small businesses (65%) are concerned about having to close again or stay closed if there is a second wave of COVID-19. But regardless of the second wave or potential second closures, a much deeper and much wider study must be conducted on the actual impact isolation has on employees' mental state. Already, we see reports of people taking lives before taking their own afterwards. Although in some of these cases suicide manifestos were found to be related to Covid-19 isolation mandates, no one knows exactly if they really are 100% attributable to Covid-19 (but I digress.)
Because we are all creatures of habit, going back to a formal place of work after a prolonged home-working can be a transitional mare (night or day). Therefore, it goes without saying that the "back-to-work" measures will need to include a much toned-down expectations on employee morale. No one should be "flogged" with new performance standards just because they've been so productive during lock-downs. Because after so many months of being away from the cubicles and office enclosures most of us have already gotten used to "living here and being home already."
Admirable is the word for organizations who chose to trust their employees, established mental health support, constant virtual communication, and set up online protocols for nearly every function. Still, to others, trusting that employees (especially hourly workers) are clocking in exactly the same amount of time as if they were coming to work, is a major milestone. Resiliency marked by the willingness to shift to online processes when it comes to counting hours is an admirable maxim, but not one that is easy to practice. Why? Not all organizations can afford to swiftly shift to online processes, that's why. Not just because of the costs of implementing enterprise level technological changes, but because of the nature of their business.
If you're just like me, you would wonder how on earth did the working population manage to learn and cope with web-based, cloud, or other remote technology, when they didn't seem to bother about them pre- pandemic closures? The answer is "forced accelerated technological adoption." The pandemic did this to us, the organizations were forced to adopt, and employees were forced to adapt. Now we are all hooked, there is no turning back.
Those who said that they are too old to learn or their work doesn't require computers are now realizing there is no such thing as "computer illiteracy and happy about it" anymore. They can never get things done if they don't learn and adapt.
But forced adaptation aside, we are still left with the question of morale. Did working from home increased it? Did it deflate morale? To circle back to my original train of thoughts, the psychological aspect of needing to measure up while working from home and the increased expectations because you are seen as comfortable working from home, does have a huge impact on morale. Although research results are yet to be seen on a global level, we can rest in the notion that the virtual flogging might continue until we see evidence of change in morale.
Notwithstanding the concerns about technology adoption and subsequent adaptation, organizations have carried the onus of ensuring that employees stay safe and if they or their loved ones succumbed to the virus that they will not be blamed, ostracized, retaliated against, or their compensation be reduced — regardless of performance issues prior to pandemic. But then again, while we see a good number of organizations who had to lay off employees due to revenue halt, others who implemented some form of response plasticity measures (whether they laid off some employees or not,) have seen the much reported productivity hike materialized for them.
These organizations have gone beyond the standard guidance on proper reopening procedures issued by their local counties by rolling out these strategies.
Notwithstanding all the measures done for the sake of response plasticity, we now have the opportunity to plan and slowly execute the reopening process towards purposeful recovery. One of the many things that are bound to disappear is the FFCRA or Family First Covid-19 Response Act. By December 2020, this temporary law will be rolled back as industries and government offices reopen as normal. Along with the FFCRA, the government assistance to address the financial burden of keeping employees employed and comply with the FFCRA while revenues are down will also cease to exist.
So, what happens to the temporary measures implemented during the pandemic? Those wonderful technology-based processes and those abandoned office spaces? That’s right they need to be re-assessed. Thankfully, if your organization has response plasticity plan in place, chances are great it’s already in the works that office spaces will be re-acquired, temporary programs will be rolled-back, and new labor regulations will be complied with.
For purposeful recovery to happen, the “back-to-work” strategies need to be done in waves with two-week interval rotations. My recommendation is to get 50% of employees per department to come back to work and ensure that at least one cubicle in between remains unoccupied for some time. Part of the wave is the two-week home-working and two-week onsite working. My additional recommendation is to continue the online collaboration programs for unforeseeable time.
Last but not least, it goes without saying that organizations must have hand sanitizers and PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) available for employees when they re-enter the office environment. This is an absolute must.
- Elena Mason, CCP, SPHR, Prudential Global Network