When 2020 began, not many business owners or executives were likely planning to redesign or significantly update their office policies and employee handbooks. Sure, adjustments are needed, but the pandemic has led to a reimagining of how our companies and teams work. A Gallup poll in April 2020 found that over 60 percent of Americans were working from home. Many months later, a lot of those employees are still home.
Immediate pivots rightly focused on technological needs to support remote work and new standards for when it would be safe to reopen shared office spaces. Yet, as the pandemic continues to drag on, it’s crucial for business leaders to take a closer look at existing office and work policies.
Have you adjusted those policies to consider the remote work reality many employees face?
Challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic have accelerated a number of changes that were already taking place in how and where businesses work. This article is the third in a five-part series about the ongoing evolution of offices and what businesses can do to adapt and succeed. The uncertainty unleashed this year has been harrowing for many businesses, but there are opportunities to grow amidst all the disruption. The first part of the series focused on employee communication and the second part examined physical office spaces and how they’re changing during the pandemic. For this third part of the series we explore how businesses can adjust their office and work policies to reflect our new reality.
Whether working from home or in the office, policies governing how and where people work need to change. For example, I’m not aware of any organizations that had established policies for masks and social distancing at their office at the beginning of the year. Likewise, remote work presents potential issues for businesses. The Society for Human Resource Management released a survey of its members this spring that found that 71 percent of employers noted that adapting to remote work has been a challenge. A key component to that struggle is how to revise company policies to meet this new reality.
Any effort to adjust policy must begin with a thorough review – and in some cases, reimagining – of your company’s handbook. Start by carefully reading your existing handbook closely and making note of changes spurred by the pandemic. This may seem simplistic, but how many company leaders and owners are re-reading their company handbooks regularly? If we’re all being honest, it’s not many people.
The pandemic may result in permanent policy changes and you’re likely to discover items that haven’t been documented in the past because they weren’t as prevalent. One common example is working from home with children present. Does your handbook address this situation? With so many students participating in school virtually, a lot of parents are juggling their work responsibilities with helping their children manage school. Now is the time to conduct a review of your handbook and consider how your policies need to change or what new policies are required to address the needs of your employees. Once you’ve evaluated your handbook in the context of the pandemic, make it an annual requirement that company policies are reviewed and updated.
5 Areas for Change
Thanks to technological advancements, many companies continue operating as this pandemic stretches on for months. Yet, the pandemic also has revealed areas where companies need to consider changes. The top five issues many companies face are outlined below.
Paid Time Off and Sick Leave
Review your paid time off and sick leave policies in light of the pandemic. Do these standards need to be adjusted? Also, with fewer of us traveling or taking vacation, what will happen to unused PTO? Can you encourage employees to use PTO to take a step back for a day or two? With anxiety at all-time highs, simply getting a brief respite can be significant. Furthermore, all companies should be aware of federal guidelines and regulations regarding sick leave. For example, the CARES Act allows for extra paid sick leave for employees who contract the virus or are unable to work because of children at home. These regulatory requirements apply to small companies as well (less than 500 employees). Many federal rules exempt small businesses, but not the CARES Act.
Finally, is your company policy explicit on how to deal with COVID-related illness? Company leaders should clearly outline standards for when employees need to quarantine, even if it’s simply following state and local public health guidance.
Work from Home
What many of us thought might be a temporary arrangement that lasted for a few weeks, work from home is becoming increasingly long-term and, in some cases, permanent. Now is the time to consider how your company wants to handle work from home rules. Do existing work from home policies need to be altered? In what cases will work from home be required? What policies will you have in place to ensure employees are comfortable returning to the office?
Don’t forget to include working hours in this policy. For employees who are working from home, what constitutes “normal” business hours? Can you add flexibility and adjust those hours?
Virtually all companies have clearly articulated dress code policies, but very few have dress codes related to working from home. Does your company need a dress code for video calls? What type of attire is consistent with your company culture? If talking with clients and customers in workout gear or a t-shirt doesn’t match your culture, you need a dress code that extends to certain work from home scenarios.
Additionally, consider how to incorporate masks into your dress code when employees return to the office. Are masks required? In what settings will they be mandatory? Finally, don’t forget to consider that masks can be used to make statements, whether fashion, political, or cultural. Is your company comfortable with allowing any type of expression on a mask (including words, images, icons, etc.)? If not, your mask policy should include guidelines around what’s permissible and what’s considered inappropriate content for a mask.
Travel has come to a halt for many businesses and there are questions as to when widespread travel will return. Take the time now to adjust your travel policies. Key questions to consider include: Will you allow company travel? What is the approval process and has that changed? Do you have an approval process for attending virtual conferences?
Like so many other facets of our society, conferences and continuing education classes have transitioned to more online and virtual platforms. As travel is reduced, some employees may still want to attend virtual conferences. Business leaders should consider a policy for virtual conferences. There may be a cost associated with the virtual conference as well questions around how much time an employee will be away from their day-to-day responsibilities.
Company holiday parties and retreats are very likely another casualty of 2020. How is your company adjusting to the lack of physical and in-person gatherings? If you do explore in-person gatherings, social distancing is going to remain important. Consider ways that you can try to make any gatherings safer by utilizing large, open spaces (conference rooms, open concept work areas, etc.).
Identifying other opportunities for team members to connect and socialize outside the typical workday is important, especially because so many employees can feel isolated when working remotely. Additionally, there have been documented spikes in stress and anxiety among employees broadly. It’s helpful for business owners and executives to remind your teams about the resources available to them. For example, do you offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that provides access to counselors or other mental health professionals? These programs and similar initiatives can be powerful resources. Reminding the entire team about them shows you care. We all need to help one another and keep an caring eye on each other.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
One thing that hasn’t changed in 2020 is the vital role of communicating with your employees. Business owners and executives must be diligent to share any changes to company policies with employees. Inform your team members what policies are changing and what’s staying the same.
When communicating these updates, it’s best to do so both in writing and verbally. Also, don’t hesitate to discuss policy changes multiple times. It may seem repetitive to company leaders, but it’s crucial that employees understand these changes.
Finally, it’s imperative that employees always review and sign an acknowledgement that they’re aware of and understand the new company policies. This acknowledgement should happen every time a new or revised company handbook is released or on an annual basis.
Successful businesses are constantly evolving in order to grow. Such adaptation is required during the pandemic as well. As your business adjusts, so too should your company policies and handbooks. With clear guidelines, employees will feel empowered and businesses will be better positioned to survive and thrive.