By now we must all accept the sad fact that the novel Coronavirus will not be wiped out, but go from a pandemic to a disease that is endemic within the population. However, after over two years of adapting to lockdown life, we are finally moving back into a more normal, pre-pandemic lifestyle in how we relax, travel, and work. Mask mandates are lifting, and employers are beginning to invite people back into the office. As workers return to a shared workspace, what role do HR executives have in leading the new healthy office paradigm, and what strategies can they implement to hire, retain, and manage the worker of the endemic future?
More than anything, wise workforce executives have to understand one key truth: you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. And that truth applies to both the threat of COVID-19 itself and the new preference among employees for remote or hybrid labour. Mandatory safety restrictions have been lifted, but the Coronavirus remains exactly as virulent and dangerous as before. It is now safer to return to the office than during the height of the pandemic, but we must still take into account the preferences of our employees. Failing to respect the virus is a recipe for office outbreaks, and failure to consider the changing face of employee expectations is a good way to invite churn.
Facilitating a Healthy Workforce
As people begin returning to the office, their HR leaders have to usher in a new age of safety and precaution to keep their most precious resource — their workforce — from contracting COVID-19. Thanks to widespread (if not comprehensive) vaccination, the disease is now statistically less dangerous and deadly than in 2020 and 2021, yet it remains both dangerous and deadly nonetheless. Even with reduced threat of morbidity, COVID is an unpleasant and lingering ailment. A worker infected with COVID will require extended sick leave and could spread the virus through an office remarkably quickly if safety precautions are not undertaken. Even one key employee out of commission at the wrong moment could doom a crucial project “all for the want of a horseshoe nail,” as the proverb goes.
Ultimately, nothing is forcing HR teams from keeping full safety restrictions mandatory when people return to the office. Desks can be moved apart to maintain social distancing, and meetings held in open, well-ventilated areas, outdoors, or with everyone staying at their desks. Mask mandates can remain in effect within the office, with no shared food and a switch to single-serving coffee machines in break rooms. These measures may seem strict and unpleasant, especially when such precautions are not enforced outside of the office. But as HR executives, we have no control over what happens outside of work. In the office, we can and must keep workers as safe as possible.
Vaccination should be mandatory for anyone returning to a shared space like an office. Barring a legitimate (and rare) medical exemption, anyone who wants to be in a closed, common space should be vaccinated for their safety and others. Vaccine skepticism has gained popularity during the COVID era, but while people are free to believe what they like in their own private spaces, the workplace is a shared space and the needs of the group and the organization must take precedence.
While preparing for employees’ return to the office, HR teams should also make sure to install the best, medical-grade air purification systems available. Most HVAC air filtration systems do not scrub the tiny droplets that carry the SARS-CoV-2 virus from infected to uninfected individuals. Neither masks nor hand sanitizer can fully prevent these droplets from lingering on an unexpected surface or infecting someone through their eyes. By installing a superior air filtration system, it will be possible to remove such traces from the air entirely. Proper air filtration could even make masking unnecessary when people are far enough apart.
These health precautions are necessary for returning to the office, but it isn’t necessary that everyone return all at once. If COVID lockdown had a silver lining, it was the greater freedom, flexibility, and productivity workers enjoyed in a work-from-home model. Today, most workers would prefer to keep working remotely or switch to a hybrid attendance system where their presence in the office is only necessary at limited times. While many employers are itching to get everyone back together full-time, the truth is that a flexible hybrid approach may be better for employee health, morale, and retention.
Staggered employee attendance allows HR teams to relax certain health restrictions, as fewer people in the office means a smaller chance of infection or spread of COVID. Offices can be reconfigured to give people more room as there will be fewer people in the office to use the space. Indeed, with fewer employees using the office at one time, it could be possible to redesign the current space or even downsize to a smaller, less expensive floorplan. These savings will also affect everything from IT to climate control to the cost of COVID-proof air filtration.
As HR executives, we must consider the needs of both our company and our employees. And because employees have gotten used to a work-from-home paradigm, it may be a useless and unhealthy uphill battle to force everyone back into the office. Not only does this remove a company’s ability to recruit from a pool of worldwide talent without requiring or paying for relocation, it may hurt productivity more than it helps.
Coworking in an office does help build company camaraderie, but the morale hit from dragging people out of a more comfortable and convenient work-from-home model could cancel out these benefits. Employees who know their value may simply look for a new job where their preferred working setup is allowed. With remote work proving to increase rather than harm productivity, full-time office attendance may simply be a relic not worth fighting for. Hybrid or remote attendance will even benefit employees who cannot or will not get vaccinated, as they can continue to work without occupying the office.
A lot can be said for sharing a workspace, and a flexible, hybrid approach gives everyone more options. By remaining adaptive and maintaining necessary safety and health restrictions, HR executives can create a new normal that is enjoyable for everyone and encourages easier recruitment, more productive work, and — most importantly — minimal worries about health and safety.
Marshal Sterio is the CEO of Surgically Clean Air Inc., a Toronto-based manufacturer of portable systems that purify air by supplementing existing HVAC systems.