Just because the workplace can return to a pre-COVID “normal” once the pandemic is in our rearview mirror does not necessarily mean we need to take that route.
In fact, it really marks a chance for companies to fully gauge how they want to come out of the pandemic.
And as a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic draws nearer amid a surge in vaccine efforts, businesses are starting to put their money where their mouth is.
“I hope we don’t go back to where we were… don’t ever waste a good crisis, we learned things about how to do things better,” said Martin Falkenberg, senior vice president of human resources at SUEZ North America, during NJBIZ’s hour-long “Positioning Your Company In A Post COVID Environment” panel on March 30.
“For us to not take advantage of those lessons and apply them permanently would be a real missed opportunity.”
Take for example Hackensack Meridian Health’s Keep America Safe Program, which employers can use to gauge the strength of their COVID-19 prevention efforts at the workplace.
“It’s now kind of not just about COVID and risk-mitigation anymore,” said HMH Vice President Michael Geiger. The program has rather been “pivoting to an occupational health or wellness program, ‘how do I address absenteeism, the mental piece of my employee? How do I keep people healthy and safe so that they don’t get sick, so that they don’t have to come to the hospital’?”
Still, Kristen Pappas, senior vice president of property management and construction at commercial realtor Onyx Equities, had a more cautioned outlook for the post-COVID workplace.
“Once people get more comfortable, we’re going to slip into bad habits again,” she told the panel. “Once the transmission stops… and once the buildings are open again, people are going to get a taste for reacclimating into old ways, I think people are going to be in danger of slipping back.”
In the months to come, businesses are going to have to think about how to keep their workforce socially distanced – especially for essential industries where working from home was difficult, and as the definition expands for who should return to the office.
“How do you spread people out, give everybody the space? We all would agree the six-foot distance is really great to stop the transmission,” Pappas continued. “Sometimes the space doesn’t always lend to giving that amount, we’re seeing more people looking for less New York City-type areas, we’re seeing a push to the suburban places.”
Some lingering uncertainties with the vaccine – the degree to which COVID-19 could be spread by those already inoculated, and the long-term effectiveness against variants and mutations – means some of these mitigation protocols need to stay in place in one form or another for quite some time.
“Can you get infected with the virus, be asymptomatic, walk around and then transmit that to somebody else and then have them get infected?” asked HMH Chief Physician Executive Daniel Varga. “It’s one of the reasons why the masking is still so important.”
And the old habits have really entailed a push toward the physical and mental well-being of the employees – making sure they’re taking care of themselves, suggested Dr. Amy Freiman, HMH’s chief wellness officer.
That means “making sure we don’t have our team members logging in at 7 a.m. because they rolled out of bed and now they don’t have a commute… and then working until [10 p.m.]. I think boundary-setting is really key.”
“As this hopefully starts to abate and the vaccines increased and the numbers start to drop off, now is the time that we’re really going to start seeing the mental impact and the well-being impact of this crisis,” she added. “The pieces we’ve seen thus far are really only just the beginning.”