Office Reentry Plans Must Account for Medically Vulnerable Employees

By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners

Originally published by Harvard Business Review.

After a few months of sheltering in place, states are beginning to open up and employers are starting to consider what a potential “back-to-the-office” plan might look like. Many people are feeling anxious about how safe the office will actually be — especially those who are at higher risk for Covid-19. This anxiety also extends to employees who might not be high-risk themselves but live with someone who is. (For brevity, I’ll refer to these two groups collectively as those who are high-risk.) How your organization supports these employees needs to be a key part of your reopening plan.

It is not a question of if, but how many of, your employees will fall into this high-risk group, given the wide range of pre-existing conditions identified by the CDC that make someone more susceptible to adverse outcomes. While it’s important to create a safe workplace for all employees, it is especially important to think about how you will support this specific, high-risk employee population. Below are several recommendations.

Have a process in place for fielding questions and concerns.

HR leaders I have been talking to in various sectors have been addressing a wide range of employee questions throughout the crisis. This will only accelerate when the organization gets ready to reopen its offices, and there will be many questions and concerns specifically from this subset of employees.

Irene Bassock, an employment attorney and Of Counsel at the law firm Cohen & Buckmann, says, “There has to be some type of planning, knowing that these requests will be coming in fast and furious. It’s important that employees know where to go. That there are people on the front line, whether it be their managers or HR. That questions are getting to people who understand how to respond to those questions, so you don’t get knee-jerk reactions.” Having a clear process in place will help create greater alignment and mitigate conflicting messages.

Support their ability to continue working from home, if possible.

A silver lining of this pandemic is that it might normalize remote work. While working at home is not ideal for everyone, we have all learned over the last few months that it is doable when necessary — and even beneficial. Allowing high-risk employees to work from home will not only help them feel safe but will also reduce the number of people in the office, giving those who are physically present more space to socially distance themselves. Studies have shown that, in student populations, fearing for one’s physical safety negatively impacts performance, and the same relationship can be inferred for working adults.

Make sure they feel included on the team.

There are a number of ways to do this. For example, don’t make them the only one calling into meetings. One organization I worked with, prior to the pandemic had a policy that if one person calls into a meeting, everyone calls into the meeting in order to level the playing field.

Another way to prevent these employees from feeling marginalized, while also mitigating risk of infection to your other employees is to create A and B teams (or possibly more). Here, project teams are comprised of both A and B team members (note: A and B do not indicate any difference in employee performance). A and B team members alternate weeks in the office. This provides multiple benefits: High-risk employees are not singled out as the only people working from home; there is even more space at the office and therefore, more social distancing; and if an employee does become sick, an entire project team is not affected and disruption to the project is minimized.

Provide training for managers.

This training needs to include two elements. The first is to train managers on how to respond to inbound requests, whether it’s how to answer them directly or how to convey the organization’s process for handling them (if someone like HR needs to get involved). The second is to train managers on how to be more attuned to how others are feeling and how to express empathy. Essential coaching skills should also be taught. These include engaged listening skills and inquiry skills to better understand each individual’s situation, as well as how to probe beyond superficial answers to understand how a colleague is really doing.

While the pandemic has greatly increased the complexity of our world, it’s clear that the ongoing safety and welfare of your employees needs to be at the top of your priority list. This is especially important for those who are at higher risk. The strategies above can help you best support this employee population and should be a key part of your reopening plan.



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