Answering Your Questions About Returning To Work

Stan Bunger
June 23, 2020 - 2:32 pm

    As we continue to navigate these unprecedented times, KCBS Radio is getting the answers to your questions about the coronavirus pandemic. Every morning at 9:20 a.m. Monday-Friday we're doing an "Ask An Expert" segment with a focus on a different aspect of this situation each day, sponsored by Sierra Pacific Financial Advisors.

    Today we're discussing the future of the workplace and how both businesses and employees will have to adapt with Tara Rethore, corporate consulate and CEO of Strategy for Real, a strategic consulting firm.

    Let's start with a little background here. Typically, if we weren't in the middle of a pandemic, businesses would be thinking three or four quarters ahead, they'd be trying to figure out how to deploy their resources. Nowadays, it's "keep the water out of the boat and keep the gunnels above water."

    Exactly, or keep the lights on because if the lights aren't on you can't go forward. And I think in the early days of the pandemic it was even more like that as people were truly scrambling. What's interesting as I talk to clients and work with our peer roundtable at Strategy for Real, we are talking increasingly a few months out now. They've got the ship righted, the water's not coming in, now what? So the conversations really have shifted dramatically towards what's going to happen, and how are we going to be able to move seamlessly in and out of that storm? Because it's unlikely to be a one-and-done as we've seen in the news already, with the resurgence and the states that are experiencing upticks in coronavirus cases.

    Well that's hopeful to hear that people are looking downstream a little bit here, if we want to keep the analogy going. And also for employees, many of them are looking at the end of federal support in July unless something extra is done, and that of course is a huge aspect of any business, the human capital.

    Yeah, human capital keeps it running, it doesn't matter what business you're in, you always need people. I think the staff that I'm hearing from and the CEO's that I'm hearing from who are connecting with their staff - which I think, by the way, is a great way to go, talk to your staff, what do they need, what do they want. The fact that this has been a systemic change is part of the real challenge. Because while many people want to come back to their offices, they want to see their colleagues and they work better that way, the reality is they don't have childcare, they don't have camps, they don't have the same comfort with traveling on metro or other public transportation. So there's a much bigger picture that comes into play than we've ever seen, I think, in dealing with our staff and how we work.

    Let's get to some questions which have come in from our listeners to We'll start with a general one here. For any business, whether it's a restaurant or whatever, how do you decide when to open the doors to the staff?

    Well obviously the very first thing to do is to rely on the CDC and the state and local government protocols and the things you need to do. You want to be ready, you want to be anticipating what are the requirements going to be and make sure you have the supplies in hand and you have the facilities in hand. The other thing is, again, to talk to staff. For example the CFO of one of the companies that I work with said that he had surveyed his staff, what will make you feel more comfortable? What are the constraints to your coming into the office? What are the things you expect when you come in here? And you need to be able to set up some of your own work protocols. Another client of mine that has multiple sites and multiple lines of business. She's had to look at it in terms of each site, because the nature of what the work is and the requirements of the staff to do that work is very, very different. So it's not even for a single company a one-size-fits-all enterprise-wide policy or solution. And that's different, because we generally try to make sure that our human capital policies are fairly consistent across the board but the reality is that may not apply. And that's new.

    Our office has a number of older workers (I'm on the edge of being "old", by the definition of 60 as old) and I'm wondering how management is supposed to accommodate them when we reopen?

    One of the things they're doing is they're looking at, what are the jobs that need to be done and where do they need to be done? And really understanding from an organizational standpoint, what do we need? You kinda have to take the person out of it, which sounds terrible in some ways but in other ways it's also super helpful because we want to be responsive to individuals, most of us. But we can't always, if we're running a business.

    So the first thing is to kinda set aside the individual piece and look at, organizationally, what do we need? What must be done, where and how? And then secondarily, who do we have to do that? And use that as a guideline to start creating some opportunities for laying out a clear policy or a clear approach. Some organizations are going to have to make very specific accommodations, but you need to make some decisions upfront as to what your expectations are and what accommodations you are able to provide. So there is a path forward on that, but it also needs to be recognized by both staff and the leadership team. And it's going to evolve, it's going to have to change. For example, say there's an outbreak in one of your offices. You've got to be able to do something different there, and you've got to be able to move quickly. Or as we learn more about this virus, we're going to have to make changes.

    Let me ask a sidebar on this - there's so many people who are happy to have a job, and I'm thinking of a few members of my family who are doing something they never did before. They're not sure they want to keep doing that very thing, but they don't want to not have a job and they don't want to be pigeonholed as, "the person who did that thing during the pandemic." What's the best way around all that?

    Yeah I'm not sure it's an "around," I honestly believe that in any talent management conversation it needs to be a conversation. So again, what are the requirements? The requirements of the various roles and the all hands on deck, which many companies have gone to, that's a really great flexible thing to do. Now that it's done, there are two things. One, you don't necessarily want to go back to the way it was. So it creates an opportunity to talk about the pros and cons. I have also been encouraging my CEO's that I work with and senior leaders to talk to their staff about what worked and what didn't so that they can start restructuring. So your family member could be contributing to that conversation around what should go forward and then just as you would in any other situation, you're going to want to have a conversation about whether these are the right people for the job. For the time being, it's often helpful to just stay there. The key thing is to also add value in other ways and then have that conversation one-on-one with your boss, your supervisor just as you would in any other situation or any other job.

    I've been working from home but I'm honestly not very good at it. I have technology weaknesses and I'm afraid the future is going to have more of this. Do you have any advice?

    Yes, honestly what I think is happening and what I'm hearing is that now that we've had a taste of this working from home thing, not everybody likes it as much as we thought we might. And we may not want to integrate work and life quite so fully. So first of all, I think employers need to be aware of that. Not all work needs to be done that way. It's another way in which leadership can be asking their staff, what tools do you need to make it happen? I also think that employers need to be looking at, what are the new technological skills that they need? People will need some assistance in that. They're going to need some support. And not everyone is productive at home, not everyone is able to connect with their staff, not all work easily flips online. So we need to rethink the structure of the work that we're doing and we need to also think about what are the capabilities? So you probably need some technology training and some different skills and tools, but in the spirit of "not everybody can go back at once," maybe the person who sent that question can go into the office to allow somebody else to work from home, because each of them works better that way or their situations vary. So I actually think there's going to be a lot of opportunity because you can't have the same number of people in the office at the same time anymore.

    What is a small office (I work for an insurance broker) supposed to do? I don't see any way we can configure the office to create the required space, and I can tell you that the working from home thing only goes so far. We need to meet with our clients and see them!

    Right, and I think what we're going to see there is a blend of in the office and out of the office, and almost rotating on a schedule. So certain people will be in the office on these days and certain people won't. I really think that's the only way it's going to work for the smaller offices. The other opportunity to see people is - especially in the summer when the weather is nice - find spaces to meet with clients outside, create a different kind of working environment that allows you to do business productively but not necessarily in the same space that you did it before.

    As a consumer, is there some sort of "standard of performance" I can expect from places I shop? For example, maybe a government or business association rating system like they have for restaurants that tells me they're doing everything properly before I go in?

    You know, I don't know the answer to that question. I think it's a wonderful idea. The challenge I find with it is all of us are moving so quickly that waiting for that is unlikely to help us. So what I would suggest on that, and what I have been doing myself, is really asking: what are the protocols you're following, what can I expect when I get there and do you require masks, disinfectants? Many companies, even the small businesses, have posted in some way what they're doing to assure the safety of their customers. That's been really the big question. How do we ensure the safety of our staff and how do we ensure the safety of our customers to the best of our ability? And I think the more that companies and leaders are speaking to that and the more that consumers are asking about that, I think we're going to see self-reporting and people really talk about what they're doing. The other thing is ask the staff when you walk in: how do you feel? Do you feel safe? It's good to see you're wearing a mask and behind a screen. It's a great way to reinforce it as well as get the real answer as to what's happening.

    My restaurant is now allowed to do outdoor dining and takeout/delivery but we still don't know exactly when we'll be able to open for indoor dining. The uncertainty is a real problem. Any advice on issues like employee retention, marketing and investing in physical modifications when we don't know what the future looks like?

    Yeah managing uncertainty is an ongoing challenge for businesses, not just this one but for everything and it's been that way forever. One of the important things to remember is when you have uncertainty, usually it's because there's a whole bunch of stuff you can't control. That said, there are some likely scenarios and outcomes that you may expect and understanding what are the most important levers that you can pull, the things you can do to deal with the situation as it stands is the first step. Once you've identified those, then you look at how well that would work under these three or four critical scenarios, likely scenarios of how things are going to open up or move forward. Because the other big piece is, we don't know what the timing looks like and we don't know whether we're going to have to move back into more of a lockdown approach or if we can continue to open up and learn to live with this virus without costing so many lives.

    So I think it's really around scenario thinking. Lay it out, it can be shorter term than you normally would think but then, what are the elements that are most impactful for your business? And that includes customers, staff, revenue - all of it. And then, which of these things can you control or how do you set yourself up so you are most likely to be successful under any of these scenarios?

    Will companies face public backlash by laying off workers over 55 to save themselves from potential health crisis impacts?

    Well then you have a discrimination issue. There's a systematic problem with that in an organization. I think the organization is going to have a problem, irrespective of the people. So I don't think that's a decision they can make. I'm not an employment law expert but that is certainly one that I would never advise a client to do. I think that there are many vulnerable populations and each person's health is protected under laws like HIPAA and other things, and that becomes the protection that employers still have to honor going forward. So it's not like you can say, you're higher risk, forget it. We're not going to do that. 

    Instead, you need to look in terms of your ability to work in the new environment, whatever that new environment looks like for your company, and continue to add value to the company and to the work that you do because that's the most important way - the only way, really - that you can assure your employment or your employability. 

    My daughter was given a diagnosis of "a viral illness" but negative for COVID-19 at the time, which was unhelpful when she requested accommodations at work for persistent fatigue and shortness of breath. How can she deal with the uncertainty that she had the virus or not with her employer? 

    This probably gets into the broader question of people's concerns about their health as they return to work unsure of what their rights are and how far to push it.

    Yes, and that's where employers need to have some clear policies and guidelines in HR around how to handle these. Several of the companies I've been dealing with have created an overview of how they're handling that and what categories they're putting people in and work roles in, and how that plays out. They are then dealing with individuals' concerns on a case by case basis within the constraints of some of those guidelines. I think that's what we're going to look for, I think that's what employers have an obligation to do and frankly it's just smart. That will then give some comfort and some guidance to individuals as to, what can they do, what can they pursue, what questions should they be asking, what kind of information do they want to provide. So if you don't know that right now, you want to ask your employers what are the guidelines for working, how will we talk about and address any safety concerns that I have, what are the implications for my specific role. And those are valid questions, they don't have to even be personal, those are questions that every employee should be asking of their employers. And the employers should have some answers. Answering those questions either way helps employers think it through.