After nearly a year of juggling the changes and challenges of the pandemic, many businesses are still in a stage of chaos, refining work-from-home efforts and limiting contact (or even proximity) with both customers and co-workers. Some businesses remain largely shut down, while others have adapted to new delivery systems, from food pickup to paid virtual performances.

As vaccinations increase, we all face the questions of how to get “back to normal” and when to begin. What will post-pandemic business life look like, and how do we get there? This article explores the getting-there part, as we anticipate a prolonged transition period.

Strategies for navigating business reopening will vary by type of workplace, type of business, and the business geography. Successful concepts may vary greatly between urban, suburban, and rural areas, but some general concepts apply to everyone.

Managing and Reducing Risk

Risk management starts with practices many businesses have been doing for months, like employee health screenings, providing personal protective equipment (PPE), updating cleaning procedures, and establishing physical distancing measures. Organizations also need to maintain or create customer and/or visitor protocols to limit potential exposure. Based on executive orders from President Joe Biden, we can expect greater involvement from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), so be on the lookout for new directives and guidance.

Today, businesses face new kinds of liabilities during reopening stages and future operations. Keeping up to date with OSHA guidelines, as well as current and evolving guidelines from the CDC, the US Department of Labor, and state and local governments, is more important than ever. Ideally, companies should designate someone whose primary responsibility is to track evolving guidelines and to report on how any changes impact company policies and practices.

Companies should also make sure that employees understand what protective measures are being taken and continue reminding employees of COVID-19 symptoms, urging them to seek medical attention if they experience symptoms. In addition, businesses should create a robust complaint resolution system so employees can voice concerns—and management can resolve issues—before they turn into lawsuits.

Reactivating and Rehiring Employees

While some businesses have operated at varied levels of production and employment through careful procedures or remote working arrangements, others have had to temporarily terminate employee relationships through furloughs, lay-offs, etc. Recalling these employees will naturally vary, depending on existing workplace procedures.

Recalling furloughed employees is straightforward. Employers can notify these individuals in writing to report to work and reactivate the payroll process, but furloughed employees can be permanently separated if business needs have changed. Employees who have been formally laid off can return through a normal hiring process; since they were separated, companies have the option of rehiring or replacing them. Review existing policies and any written communications or promises made to the people affected to help avoid any perception of wrongful termination. Make decisions based on an objective, fairly applied, and fully documented process.

Of course, the flip side of asking employees to return is whether they actually want to. More than 50% of people surveyed say they are nervous about returning to work, primarily based on fear of contracting COVID-19 and potentially infecting family members. While some will be reassured as vaccinations continue, the availability of vaccines raises another question.

Mandating Vaccinations?

Many Americans are lining up for COVID-19 vaccinations and others are clamoring for the opportunity, but many people remain reluctant.

In December 2020, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued guidance that employers can encourage and possibly mandate that employees receive the COVID-19 vaccine. However, businesses must also comply with current workplace laws, including the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These laws protect the rights of employees who may not want to get the shot due to a disability or religious belief.

Other employees may not want the vaccine, particularly under the current emergency approval granted by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). As a result, employers must evaluate the level of risk that non-vaccination poses. Would a non-vaccinated employee cause a “direct threat” or be a “significant risk” to the health and safety of other employees or customers? Does the nature of the work involve close proximity to others, exposure to food products or other consumables, or physical interaction with others?

Such questions must be answered on a case-by-case basis, while establishing a procedure that is perceived as fair to all. As always, consulting with legal counsel is a best practice when considering a new policy.

Preparing for Change

While some businesses have been almost halted by the pandemic, others have functioned fairly well, even though working from home has required dramatic changes. The decision to fully reopen an office may meet some resistance. Beyond the obvious concerns and fear about contracting the disease or infecting family members, childcare may be a critical issue for some employees, depending on the status of schools and childcare businesses reopening in your area. These two factors may be mitigated over time, but a third challenge will remain, regardless of how “safe” things become socially.

Simply put, many employees have grown used to remote working and feel like they are as—or possibly even more—productive than they were before the pandemic. They may balk at resuming the expense and troubles of commuting, office dress, and other office procedures. Business owners should prepare a strong case for returning to the office, while being flexible where business allows to avoid losing high-quality employees.

To entice employees to return to the office, some companies are allowing a mix of telecommuting and in-office scheduling, which eases the transition for employees and allows employers to reduce the number of employees in the office at once. Other incentives include paying for a portion of commuting costs and offering free lunches or money toward childcare.

Meeting the Next ‘New Normal’

Some businesses have learned they can function at a high level with lower overhead and a smaller on-site staff, supported by telecommuters and collaboration technology. Likewise, having to function for a year without “normal business travel” has suggested that many businesses may decrease travel requirements, even when no health restrictions remain.

One change to prepare for, then, is the likelihood of a “new normal,” unlike the pre-pandemic world. Recognizing this possibility and working with it—versus trying to work around it and forcing a return to “the way things used to be”—may be one of the most important evolutions for a successful business.

The Lindenberger Group continues to help organizations in virtually every industry stay abreast of regulatory changes and update HR policies. For more information or to discuss your HR needs, please contact us at 609-730-1049 or send us an email.