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Labor Law

Labor Law: Employers in 2022 need to refresh and re-engage

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RTD Metro Business law columnist, Karen Michael.

As we approach two years into a pandemic, the new year is starting with the same feeling of exhaustion and malaise as it did at the beginning of 2021.

Many employers, now on their third or fourth iteration of return-to-office plans, are once again re-thinking an extension of remote work as the fast-spreading omicron variant is playing havoc with reopening offices for hybrid or full-time in-person work.

Companies should consider how it can safely live with the pandemic, and start to resume normal operations as much as possible.

Most Americans have resumed normal personal lives while taking necessary precautions, so employers should consider moving toward whatever normalcy will look like in the workplace going forward.

For many companies, the great remote experiment has not been a win, and the need for co-workers and teams to be together again, at least some of the time, is a business priority.

Employers have needed to be flexible during the pandemic, but 2022 is time for planning. I provide five suggestions:

1. Plan for normalcy: If the pandemic ended today, what would normalcy look like for your organization?

Whatever that is, plan to safely get there in 2022. Whether you need to implement vaccine mandates, testing or masking to do it, then that’s what you need to do.

But pausing the strategic vision of work indefinitely on a pandemic that apparently has no end date cannot continue as a business strategy.

2. Plan to re-engage: Video meetings got employers through the pandemic and kept it on life support. For some, they will remain at least partly.

Two years is a long time, however, to have been away from colleagues and, in many cases, never meeting a colleague in person for new employees who began work at the organization during the pandemic. This has been especially difficult for new graduates who only know remote work.

If on-site work is a business priority and part of the business model, employers should consider whether it’s time to move forward with return to the office plans despite the pandemic, even a scaled back version.

Employers can also schedule designated in-person meetings for co-workers to see one another and engage. If necessary, companies can send at-home COVID tests to employees just prior to the meeting.

Employers should also offer a video stream for employees with disabilities or high-risk employees who are unable to participate in person. In any return-to-the-office planning, this group of employees must be considered and accommodated.

3. Plan for accountability: The pandemic revealed rock stars in the workplace who worked tirelessly to get things done.

The pandemic also exposed some really bad employees who got worse in these last two years.

Many employers have given employees a pass over these last two years in the name of the pandemic. This lack of accountability has caught up to the business bottom line and is causing more burnout on those rock stars who are having to take up the slack.

Regardless of whether employees are working remote, on-site or a hybrid, it’s time to set expectations and hold employees accountable. No more pandemic excuses.

4. Plan to keep up with the COVID rules, mandates and state and local restrictions: Most employers are already doing this.

But circumstances are changing rapidly with shifts in lawsuits around mandates, modifications to federal and state health guidelines, changes in quarantine and isolation rules, and tweaks to the guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

While lawyers do a good job of helping employers keep up with the changes, health and safety experts have proven invaluable to employers during this time. Find one of each and make sure your business keeps up.

5. Plan to do your thing: Businesses don’t need to keep up with the Joneses.

Just because employer X is returning on-site full time, mandating vaccines or masks, or whatever that company is doing, your company should make its own decisions.

I get asked all the time by employers about what other businesses are doing. While it’s good to learn best practices from others, too often employers feel they have to do what others are doing even if it isn’t what is best for their own business needs.

Whatever works for your individual business to keep employees engaged, thriving and safe — then you do that.

Regardless of the pandemic, companies need to bring positive energy to the workplace in 2022, and planning for the future of work despite the pandemic will help bring a needed refresh and re-engagement to the workplace.

Karen Michael is an attorney and president of Richmond-based KarenMichael PLC and author of “Stay Hired.” She can be reached at stayhired@stayhired.net.

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