Eager to Return to the Office…Until Hearing the New Rules

June 11, 2020

COVID-19 Roundtable Discussions

This summary covers two recent iterations of Executive Networks’ COVID-19 virtual roundtable series. More than 40 members joined the roundtables to share some of the pressing strategic and operational challenges surfacing at this stage of the crisis. Thank you to the members who participated in these virtual roundtable discussions. This document summarizes calls from June 3rd and 4th. Some approaches may have since changed.

Returning to the Office

  • Settling into a new normal in Europe: One member company has spent the past several weeks inching toward 30% of its normal in-office headcount working daily from its headquarters campus. “The comments from our employees and managers have been very complimentary thus far. They say they feel safer on campus than they do outside,” the member said. Safety protocols remain exceedingly strict: before returning to the office employees must register and agree to terms online. Temperature checks occur multiple times daily at every building entrance across the expansive multi-office campus. Mask use remains mandatory indoors whenever more than one person is in a room, and masks are supplied daily with storage bags. Twelve-seat conference rooms are now maxed out at four people. Hand sanitizer stations are located throughout each floor and only two people at a time are allowed in 10-person elevators.
  • A shift in the default position: Two members said that their CEOs have recently announced that office employees will be working from home until further notice—a shift from the “wait and see” messaging that prevailed for those companies earlier in the pandemic. For one of the member companies, the announcement was accompanied by the CEO’s vow to revisit a standing policy that does not provide stipends or reimbursements for home office equipment. A number of other members also said that they are currently re-examining home office stipend/reimbursement policies.
  • Eager to return… until hearing the new rules: A member company is gearing up to begin inviting employees back to its largest U.S. office site on June 15th. The company released a video to all employees in the region, explaining the new safety environment and the onerous steps employees must take to return to the office. The member shared that she’s hearing from some employees who signed up for the first wave, watched the video and have now decided that they’d like to wait for the second or third waves to return. The company is accommodating these requests. Employees not needed for the basic functioning of the office have been told that they only need to return once they’ve personally initiated a conversation with their manager indicating their desire to do so. “People are very appreciative of this flexibility,” the member said.

Challenges with New Employees

  • Onboarding and instilling culture remotely: Virtual onboarding remains a universal challenge, with companies trying a number of different approaches to instill company culture in a remote setting. One member company reported that it had hired a new senior HR executive who has been stuck nine time zones away from her new HQ colleagues for more than 10 weeks. “We’re struggling to build connectivity outside of Teams,” the member said. “It’s a tough challenge and needs much deeper thinking.”
  • Bringing back new employees first: A member company headquartered in Australia has included a slate of 150 new hires in its first wave of returnees to the office. The member said it be much different than the normal onboarding routine, but the decision was made to bring onboardees in regardless because the alternative was to ask these new employees to go through the onboarding process alone in front of a screen.
  • Mixed approaches with outsourcing: Several member companies were in the process of adjusting outsourcing contracts when the pandemic hit, adding speed and complexity to an already difficult transformational challenge. One member company that was in the process of outsourcing financial work to a vendor in India decided to push ahead despite the crisis—even going so far as arranging to deliver computer equipment to its vendor’s newly-remote workers. The result: So far, so good. The company has enjoyed back-to-back “seamless” month ends—despite the vendor’s initial skepticism that it could deliver in a remote working environment. Two other member companies had already decided to bring back inside some previously outsourced financial and HR work. Those companies accelerated their plans amid the pandemic.

Testing and Leave

  • Testing: good for optics, but not necessarily good for mitigating risk: A substantial minority of member companies are moving forward with employee testing for COVID-19 infection and/or antibodies. However, most member companies are not testing employees unless regulators or customers mandate them. As one member put it: the experts we’re talking to say that testing does very little to reduce risk. But we are seeing that the optics are positive when companies do perform tests. We have told our people that as tests become more readily available and reliable, we may reconsider offering them.
  • Adjusting leave policies: A number of member companies are taking action now to avoid a glut of paid leave requests once the pandemic subsides. Many are encouraging employees to take time off while working from home, with some asking leaders to model the behavior. Others are extending mandatory holiday periods around the Christmas season. One member said her company normally shutters offices for three days at Christmas. This year, the plan is to extend that to 10 full working days, with mandatory PTO use. Another member company has suspended its option to cash out unused leave because of cash flow concerns. And another member company has extended their normal PTO carry-over period by three months.

Thank You

Thank you to all who participated for your energy and enthusiasm! We will have more of these Virtual Roundtable Discussions to continue the conversation and send out surveys and resources on specific topics concerning COVID-19.

If your team is dealing with similar issues or have questions you’d like answered please fill out the form below!

May 28 COVID-19 Emergency Member Session Recap

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