As California gears up to reopen in mid-June, the prospect of returning to the office is creating anxiety for the workforce that was forced to work from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At least 70% of employees have been doing all or most of their work from home, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. That’s compared to pre-pandemic levels, when only about 20% of employees telecommuted.
KCRW talks with three experts on hybrid workplace models, receiving input from employees, and how to best equip offices for the post-pandemic future.
Todd Wulffson is an attorney and managing partner at CDF Labor Law where he counsels California companies on workplace-related issues in the time of the pandemic. Regina Phelps is a pandemic planner and founder and CEO of Emergency Management & Safety Solutions Inc. And Tsedal Neeley is a Naylor Fitzhugh Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School and author of Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding from Anywhere.
Can employers require workers to be vaccinated?
Wulffson says that generally, employers can require their employees to be vaccinated — with some caveats. In California, employers must accommodate people with disabilities, people with medical conditions that might prevent them from getting vaccinated, and people with religious beliefs that prevent them from being able to be vaccinated.
However, he points out that if the employer wants to require employee vaccinations they must pay for the time spent going to get vaccinated, and the cost of the vaccine itself. Plus, vaccines must be readily available to those employees.
The office will look different
Phelps predicts that until at least early 2022, the workplace will look different than pre-pandemic times due to safety guidelines. Employees will most likely be required to still wear masks, keep at least six feet of distance between themselves, new desk arrangements, as well as one way hallways or stairways.
As for an end to Zoom? Phelps says video conferencing might still be used to prevent crowding.
“Frankly, we don't want you cramming a bunch of people into a conference room,” she says.
Want to know how your staff is feeling? Send out a survey
Neeley says the best way to gauge how to move forward is to send out an anonymous survey asking about employee preferences for the future of their workplace.
“The preferences will range anywhere from ‘I want to come in one to two days a week,’ all the way to ‘I want full remote,’” Neeley says.
It will then be critical for employers to build new company policies that reflect the needs of both the business and its workforce.
“Come up with a policy that's directly aligned with the critical tasks that the organization has to get done. … Who needs to be on site? [Who are] the essential people? How do we build a rotation program?”
Neeley adds, “You need to build people's competencies around remote work, as well as digital-first mindsets. We haven't developed skills we've been surviving. … Now, it is all about our greatest assets: our employee base and a distributed workforce.”
The importance of phasing in employees to the workplace
Phelps says to be flexible when bringing employees back into the office.
“Bring people back slowly. See how it works. Make modifications, Do that for as much as 60 days, and then begin to add the next 10% or 15% [of employees],” she says.
She points out it’s critical for office leaders to listen to the needs of their workers.
“My clients who have done the best in the pandemic have demonstrated empathetic leadership. They are attentive to what their employees are talking about and needing, The ones that don't are actually having people that are leaving because they just feel like it's just not worth it,” Phelps says.
Continue to offer WFH options
Neeley says that so far, the pandemic has revolutionized the way workplaces operate. It’s also shown that employees love working from home.
“Several surveys that have been conducted in the last few months [have found that] 87% of employees want to retain some form of remote work in their professional arrangements.
She adds that at least a quarter of the 87% of employees surveyed would want to continue working virtually full-time.
“The majority of employees don't want to go back. So enter the concept of hybrid workplaces, where you're going to see a limited pool of people who are in the offices. And this is where we're headed, post-pandemic.”
Reimburse employee at-home expenditures
Wulffson warns that if employees are going to work for home, it’s important to reimburse employees for the expenses. He cites California labor code section 2802, which states employers must reimburse employees for the costs associated with performing their jobs.
“The best way to avoid [a lawsuit] is to pay people that are working at home some kind of a monthly stipend. It doesn't have to be a whole lot,” Wuffon says “Tell them: ‘this is for the additional electricity, internet, cell phone charges that are difficult to calculate — that we know you're incurring working for us at home.’”
Neeley points out that some Bay Area companies are providing stipends due to the wear and tear on employee homes.
"What we have found is that certain demographic groups are struggling much more than others with the wear and tear. With the working conditions, space [and] ambient noise. … If you have very small children in your home [or] pets, it makes it much more difficult to work,” Neeley says. “The reality is, employers are saving millions of dollars when people go home to work, and they begin to reduce their real estate holdings.”
Thoughtfully select which employees to bring back
As companies decide which employees can return, Wulffson warns to prevent preferential or discriminatory treatment.
“Are they people under 40? Are they more white than people of color? Are they people that are more male than female?”
Wuffson says age discrimination has been one of the most common lawsuits he’s seen come out of the pandemic.
“There's this concept that we need to protect people that are over 65. That's great, but that doesn't mean you prefer people under 65, such that you discriminate against people that are over 65.”