Flexibility Is Key To “Coaxing” Workers Back to the Office

Reading “They Want You Back In the Office, How to coax corporate America to return to work?” on Sunday, I thought to myself “oh good, this will address incentives and COVID-19 vaccines, the provision of paid sick leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), and, of course, ideas on flexibility to coax back the enormous, unprecedented number of women who left the workforce during the pandemic.

That is not what I read in this New York Times article. Nope. Instead, I read about plays for flexible lease terms, air filtration systems, and strategic floor plans. Not unimportant!

However, reopening must be done thoughtfully and holistically, accounting for a myriad of factors, including (but not limited to, naturally) industry, size, what state the office is in, and federal, state, and local COVID-19 guidance. Of which there a-plenty.

I know, I know, CEOs, you want butts in chairs. One chief executive quoted in this article said,

But physical offices, they argue, are critical to nurturing new employees, imbuing people with a sense of company culture — and keeping them productive.

The full article is here.

Image by Ronald Carreño from Pixabay

I am here to tell you: neither productivity nor an inclusive company culture hinges primarily on face-time in non-public-facing organizations.

I am one of 290 partners in the U.S. and UK for a law firm that has always been cloud-based, i.e., remote. My firm hit $113M in gross revenue in 2020. All without requiring a single person to enter an office.

If I want camaraderie or to bounce ideas off another partner, I pick up the phone or schedule a video call. I feel fully connected to my partners and derive the benefit of the full range of their expertise.

Corporate America, Have You Considered…

If productivity and culture are truly suffering, make a plan. Safety tops the list, pursuant to CDC guidelines, OSHA regulations (expecting a new rule soon!), and state and/or local law.

Returning to an office that has been sparsely populated for more than a year requires a plan about hours, changes to telecommuting policies, and updates to leave policies to include the myriad of new COVID-19 leave laws enacted in 2020-21 all over the country.

Employers must consider workers with disabilities who need reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) before returning to the office. Not just the employees you knew about, but those who have developed mental health conditions during and as a result of the pandemic. Heck, one survey (Forbes) found that 65% of employees feel mental health issues have affected their ability to work. 

Have you considered whether you might want to supplement or increase your mental health benefits to help employees with the massive allostatic overload that is fueling the steep rise in mental health disabilities?

What about pregnant employees who need accommodations or cannot get a vaccine and those whose disabilities who may not have been able to get a COVID-19 vaccine? Do you know your obligations to these workers?

For employers in states that require specific COVID-19 safety plans, you need to know what those safety requirements are before you open those office doors. More than 14 states have adopted comprehensive COVID-19 safety protection requirements (as well as some localities).

Employers should have a COVID-19 vaccine policy and, possibly, a COVID-19 vaccine education campaign to advise their employees where the business stands on COVID-19 vaccines—whether it will require employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine and whether it will offer PTO or other incentives and what kind. Organizations must manage employees that opt out of vaccines due to a disability or a religious objections.

These are just some of the considerations to noodle over before instituting a mandatory, inflexible return.

Rigidity Could Impact Retention of Your Working Parents, Especially Women

As I wrote here (as have others, even in Time), women continue to bear the brunt of childcare and school, cleaning, planning, coordinating, shopping, and cooking all while “managing” full-time jobs.

Image by Standsome from Pixabay

McKinsey & Company’s Women in the Workplace 2020 reported 1 in 4 women have considered leaving the workforce and that moms are three times more likely as dads to be responsible for most of the caregiving during the pandemic. McKinsey found that women are 1.5 times more likely that men to spend an additional 3+ hours per day on childcare and housework.

Employers, your momma employees are exhausted. And they’re quitting.

Indeed, CNBC reports that more than 2.3 million have left the workforce since February 2020, bringing their labor participation rate to 1988 levels, according to the National Women’s Law Center. The Atlantic reported an even higher 2.5 million women exited their jobs during the pandemic. And more are considering leaving.

Why? This Atlantic article described the women interviewed:

They were feeling a lot more burned out; they were feeling like they have extra responsibilities outside of the workplace, and not having flexibility at work.

McKinsey report author Jess Huang, as told to The Atlantic

These numbers and the mass exodus of women from the workplace reported in these articles astonish me. How can employers retain the talents of their mom employees? Makes it tough to have a gender-diverse workplace, huh?

“Flexibility At Work” – I Have Takeaways For You, Employers

Look, I’m not saying, don’t open your offices back up—far from it! I’m saying return to the office mindfully, empathetically, flexibly and as safely as possible. Consider the following:

  • Providing paid sick leave and emergency family medical leave under FFCRA—it’s free! Sure, there’s paperwork involved, but again—the federal government reimburses businesses with tax credits through September 30, 2021. Doesn’t the “free” balance out the red tape if it keeps your workforce safer?
  • Ensure navigation of the sometimes complicated web of federal, state, and/or local sick, quarantine, and vaccine laws;
  • Create more flexible schedules, including part-time and job-sharing options;
  • Update your policies on travel, leaves of absences, attendance, etc.;
  • An Employee Assistance Program that provides mental health benefits, among others;
  • Conversations with your employees who are parents and caregivers to discover what would help them best;
  • Ensure you have a trained HR team, and train your managers to recognize requests for accommodations and to mirror your safety policy;
  • And, along the same lines, clear, frequent communications with your workforce. Provide accurate, recent information from trusted sources like the CDC, your state Department of Health, or your friendly, outside employment counsel (:-)).

Flexibility is key. I barely scratch the surface here, but you get the gist: the workplace as we knew it needs a bit of facelift instead of mandatory face-time.

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Amy Epstein Gluck

Amy Epstein Gluck has represented individuals and corporate clients in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and various federal district courts for more than twenty years. Ms. Epstein Gluck’s current practice areas include employment law—advising on and drafting employment agreements; handling employment negotiations, severance agreements, noncompete and nondisclosure agreements, “wrongful terminations” and other EEO matters; representation at the EEOC level; advising employers about discrimination laws and how to remain in compliance, and employment negotiations.