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Reopening after COVID-19: What companies need to know

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As the nation begins reopening after COVID-19, companies need to have a smart game plan to protect their employees, customers, and their businesses.

It’s not just about following new regulations and safety practices (although that’s important). Reopening safely requires that you bring all of your stakeholders to the table to plan for your immediate and long-term future.

“One thing that we’ve been communicating with our clients is you have to have a thought-out, and written-out plan to execute on,” says Jackie Baxley, environmental health and safety practice leader (EHS), at HRP Associates, an environmental and engineering consulting firm.

Consider this your reopening checklist.

Assess your space and local laws

Before you reopen, you need to take a look at your workplace, your work practices, and your people. This can include evaluating traffic patterns for your facility, the work-station structure, breaking and lunching habits, etc. Ultimately, you want to limit close proximity interactions as much as possible, says Baxley.

You also need to make sure you understand local ordinances and note that they are going to be very different by municipality. “Look at what your local health department guidance is,” says Baxley.

Develop a prevention plan

There is no one-size-fits-all approach here, which is why doing assessment first is critical, says Baxley. Some prevention examples may be hand sanitizing stations and educating your employees on using them; protocols on wearing face coverings (which may or may not be required based on location); rerouting of traffic flow, etc.

For one distribution center, the solution to change to one-way aisles was a big help. Other ideas may be limiting the number of entrances into the building, and staggering shifts and appointments.

Another part of prevention is disinfection. But it’s not simply spraying some Lysol and calling it a day.

“In that plan, you’re identifying what disinfectant you’re using, the proper use of those disinfectants, who you have doing the disinfection, and who will contact if you have someone infected in the workspace,” says Baxley. The CDC has guidance on this, but certain municipalities have outlined more specific expectations following suspected or confirmed cases.

Set up safety controls

One complex aspect of control is whether or not to perform medical screenings on employees. “You definitely want to engage your HR department because there are EEOC considerations,” says Baxley. Whether it’s touch-free thermometers, cameras that capture thermal imaging, or giving building visitors a questionnaire when they enter, it’s important to note that EEOC has indicated that the results of screenings are considered medical records, so HR would have to be involved in maintaining those records. Plus, how might contract tracing play out in a work environment should a staffer get sick?

With all this to consider, large organizations – especially healthcare facilities, senior living, or colleges and universities – should invite public health officials to discussions on how to handle some of these big questions.

Less invasive prevention measures include removing workstations or adding plexiglass barriers, as well as eliminating shared spaces and equipment. For organizations with open-concept layouts, it might mean turning shared spaces into designated spaces. Other proactive steps may be giving employees the items needed to disinfect their workspaces and touchpoints, and increasing janitorial cleanings in common areas or on surfaces like light switches and doorknobs.

Prioritize communication and encourage feedback

Just as vital as all of the measures and protocols companies need to consider for their physical reopenings, organizations need to put real effort behind the emotional needs and wellness of their workforce.

“It’s a great feeling when all this is going knowing that the company takes the time to listen and cares so much about their people,” says Stephanie Bathke, lead culture and brand manager at Insight Global. She notes that the company has been finding new creative ways to keep the personal connections going among colleagues, from staff happy hours to transitioning the annual company conference into a virtual format. “It’s given us all something fun to look forward to, and to remind us of what a special place this is,” she says.

In the meantime, everyone is doing their part to adapt and step up for the clients, especially in high-demand industries. “On the first Saturday of our work-from-home transition, we had 50 recruiters working to staff a makeshift hospital in Atlanta with 65 people. They pulled it together in 24 hours,” says Doster. “Right now during such extraordinary times, there is no greater purpose for us than being the light for others by helping find people jobs, and by taking care of our clients.”

Put a focus on mental well-being

Cate Miller, manager of talent delivery center of excellence at Concentrix, a global customer experience company specializing in customer engagement and improving business performance, says her company has also taken great strides toward focusing on the mental well-being of its workforce. “We took an approach that if we’re going to live our culture statement that we are ‘different by design,’ then we’re going to live up to that standard and going to take care of our employees,” she says.

That has meant not only constant communication, but reminders to take breaks, step away from the computer, take yoga classes, and more. “Most of us have small children and now have become full-time teachers in the midst of this pandemic as well,” she says. “We have a constant support system where it’s OK to ask for help or ask questions.”

“Being sure that people know if you need help, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, or that we can connect you with professionals to help you, is us helping each other – that’s us being one team,” says Jason Brown, vice president, delivery shared services at Concentrix.

“Getting each other through it is as much a part of the return to going forward as the tactical steps,” he says.

Phase-in reopening

Concentrix has some offices still open, though it has shifted a large portion of people to work-from-home setups. “Even though we continued to operate in our sites, we had some people who weren’t comfortable or had underlying conditions who chose not to be working right now and we respect that choice,” says Brown.

It’s also important to evaluate each location individually, he says. “Our response is going to be appropriate for each community. What we do in upstate NY is going to be different than what we do in Midwest,” says Brown. And just because a state says it’s “safe” to reopen, doesn’t mean that the company will resume all in-person activities at once.

One of the advantages for Concentrix’s North America division is that it can look to the global teams in China and South Korea to understand what their journey has been. “They share best practices about what’s worked, and then you can localize that,” says Brown.

For spaces that do reopen, social distancing is going to be a key part of it. “We will operate those facilities below their peak capacity in a way that allows people to feel safe and comfortable,” he says.

Hiring after COVID-19

Companies like Concentrix and Insight Global aren’t slowing down their recruiting and hiring initiatives, but they are having to adapt them.

“Prior to COVID-19, we had virtual tools, video interviews, text recruiting applications, etc. What we didn’t anticipate was 100% of our candidate contact going virtual,” says Brown. One of the questions the company will figure out over the coming months is what does the ‘new normal’ look like in terms of streamlining that process for candidates. “This crisis helped accelerate what was already a direction we were heading in; we’ll get there faster as a result of what we’ve been through.”

At Insight Global, the team had hired a large number of entry-level recruiters before the pandemic hit. “We have incredible new recruiters slated to start across North America over the next few months,” says Doster. That plan hasn’t changed, although the onboarding may look different. New training models are being developed behind the scenes to make sure the latest hires get the best training possible.

“Insight Global University, our internal training and development division, is working tirelessly to ensure all of our upcoming hires receive even more training during this time. Every single recruiter that we hire matters, and training is paramount to the success of each and every one of them,” he says.

Looking ahead

As the saying goes, “we can’t control what we can’t control.” But we can define what we are able to control, says Baxley.

It all comes back to that assessment, prevention, and control planning, and realizing that it is a continuous process. Says Baxley: “You have to adapt to what is going to be a very dynamic next few months.”

How COVID -19 is changing the recruiting and hiring process

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Nearly every aspect—from interviewing, to onboarding—has changed in recent weeks. If you’re one of the companies still hiring in the midst of the pandemic, you’re likely going about it in a new way. From where you’re looking for talent to the interview and onboarding process, social distancing is impacting recruiting in a myriad of ways, and just how much will depend on your industry.“Some sectors have been obliterated, like hospitality and travel,” says Arran Stewart, cofounder and chief visionary officer for the automated job-matching site “Conversely to that, some are absolutely booming. Logistics and healthcare workers are in huge demand as are certain retail workers, like supermarkets.”Stewart’s site has seen a surge in demand in blue-collar workers, with 100,000 more posts for warehouse workers than the platform’s traditional numbers. “It’s unprecedented growth in that sector, since everyone is having things delivered to their homes,” he says.Blue collar or white, the way companies hire workers has fundamentally changed.

The first change is how companies find candidates. Due to social distancing, many are pulling back on national or global advertising, limiting their geographic search. “They look locally first, focusing on their city rather than flying someone in,” says Atta Tarki, author of Evidence Based Recruiting and CEO of the specialized executive search firm ECA. “If they can’t find someone, they’ll slowly widen the search.”Social distancing may be a positive for internal candidates, many of whom are getting a closer look, says Tarki. “A number of clients said the responsible thing to do is put a freeze on external hiring and repurpose their internal people,” he says.And gig workers may find opportunities, too, as companies are using them to bridge the gap, says Tarki. “Some companies are putting permanent roles on pause, filling interim roles instead,” he says.

The interview process is also changing, going from in-person to video platforms like Zoom. “Face-to-face interviews don’t exist anymore, and everybody’s fine with video interviews,” says Stewart. “It’s peculiar for blue collar workers, though. They’re used to turning up for an interview that would lead to a job. Now they’re being interviewed over video and turning up to work.”In some cases, companies that have colleagues in other cities are asking them do in-person interviews with candidates, says Tarki. “Before the lockdown, these might have been done at a coffee shop, and now sometimes people are meeting at a local park,” he says.How a company adapts its interview process can be a clue to its culture, adds Tarki. “A couple of weeks ago, our first wave of clients were allowing some candidates to opt out of onsite meetings and made it comfortable for them to do so,” he says. “Some companies are letting people start a few months later if that helps them. The biggest question on people’s minds right now about switching jobs is will their new boss be reasonable if something comes up. By accommodating different comfort levels, companies aren’t just saying they have a good culture; they’re showing it.”

Once a candidate is hired, the onboarding process is becoming virtual, too, and the biggest change is in the new management style it requires, says Stewart. “Onboarding is about bonding and managing emotions day to day, and when you’re dealing with working remotely, it creates a challenge,” he says. “Onboarding is quite personal. How do you help someone new to the company feel immersed with the business and a part of it?”Some companies are using VR technology to give candidates a tour of the facilities, says Tarki. And regular videoconferencing is important.“Helping someone feel part of a team comes down to clear information, clear directives, and strong leadership,” says Stewart. “You may only speak to someone 15 or 20 minutes when before you spent the entire day sitting just a few desks away. You need to offer plenty of resources and information, with scheduled conversations through video. You need to introduce a routine into their lives.”

How people work changed overnight, and the new processes may become permanent, says Stewart. “In the past, our studies found that 44% of companies wouldn’t entertain remote working, and now pretty much every company has to entertain it,” he says. “That’s a huge shift in working, interviewing, and hiring. It requires a greater level of trust, understanding credentials, and managing personalities and relationships.”Stewart predicts that companies will see that workers can be productive at home. “They might also enjoy not needing extensive overheads with huge offices or the pressure to create an engaging environment, especially if they’re getting the same level of productivity,” he says.“It’s a new status quo,” he says. “We will have long-tail repercussions to the changes in behavior, and some companies will flourish and new ways of working and new technologies will emerge. In next 12 months, the recruiting landscape will look quite different.”

Hiring in a COVID-19 World

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HR professionals are faced with myriad new responsibilities during the coronavirus outbreak—and some are also still required to perform the usual tasks—like hiring.
While many companies have temporarily shut down, and many others have put hiring on hold, for some organizations it’s business as, mostly, usual. Companies that had been recruiting for key positions will likely need to move forward with that hiring process. Companies suddenly finding themselves in need of new workers (grocery stores and delivery services) must come up with new ways to recruit and hire that comply with legal and safety regulations.

How can companies appropriately—and legally—extend, or not extend, job offers? Can companies require testing? Quarantine? Work-from-home? Can they choose not to hire someone who refuses to work onsite—or from home? We asked some HR and legal experts to weigh in.
Interviews: Live or Remote and the Implications of Each

While most areas of the United States are practicing social distancing, bringing candidates into the workplace to meet with a hiring team may not be a good idea.
“The COVID-19 pandemic will force many employers to conduct virtual interviews over Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts and other media instead of face-to-face,” said Beth Zoller, an attorney and legal editor for online HR resource site XpertHR. Before doing so, though, employers should “make sure that the interviewer and the job applicant have the correct information to connect to the video or remote interview and that they are comfortable with the technology.”

There may be some legal considerations as well, Zoller said. If the interview is being recorded it may be necessary to obtain consent before the interview, in accordance with state laws. “Additionally, be aware of state laws such as that in Illinois that impose specific requirements with regard to video interviews,” she said.
Requiring an applicant to come in for an interview raises potential safety issues. “If an employer requires a job applicant to come to the workplace for an interview,” Zoller said, “the employer should make sure to take the appropriate safety precautions to protect the health of the workplace.”
Can You Test Applicants for Coronavirus.

Blaine Bortnick is an attorney and partner in the New York City office of Rasco Klock. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently released guidance on testing job applicants for coronavirus, Bortnick said, “to reassure employers that they may screen job applicants after making a conditional offer, as long as the employer does so for all entering employees in the same type of job.”

In addition, he said:
• Employers may delay the start date of an applicant with COVID-19 or its symptoms.
• Employers may withdraw job offers to applicants who have COVID-19 or its symptoms if they need the applicant to start immediately.
• Employers may require employees to work from home, and they may decline to hire applicants who refuse to work at the company’s designated work location, whether that be onsite or remotely.

Carl Muller, an attorney with Tucker Ellis in Cleveland, advises caution when rescinding job offers, however. Candidates who test positive but who have only mild symptoms—similar to a cold or mild flu—would not likely be considered to have a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But employers may be violating the ADA if they decline to hire a candidate who tests positive and is hospitalized “with significant symptoms and whose breathing is impaired for many months during a lengthy recovery. [That person] would likely be considered to have a disability under the ADA,” he said.

The EEOC has also advised that federal, state and local public health guidelines also be followed. “However, employers need to be aware that any medical screening, including temperature checks, are considered medical examinations and thus are considered confidential medical records,” Bortnick said.
Can You Require Quarantine or Work-at-Home?
Yes. The bottom line is that employers have an obligation to protect the health of their employees.

“Nobody with coronavirus or associated symptoms should be in the workplace, and this extends to candidates and new hires,” said Hannah Sorcic, counsel in Reed Smith’s labor and employment group in Chicago. “If the employer has legitimate concerns about a new hire’s exposure, it can require the employee to remain offsite for a period of time, or perhaps delay the start date. Consistent and nondiscriminatory application of company policies and procedures will be critical, as we anticipate a wave of COVID-19 employment litigation will follow.”
Further, when returning to work, employers may require workers to submit doctors’ notes certifying their fitness for duty, according to the EEOC, citing ADA guidelines.
Muller said that there may be instances where these mandates could be problematic.

• There may be some anti-retaliation or other protections for candidates and employees who refuse to work onsite if doing so would violate one of the many federal, state and local orders directing nonessential businesses to cease operations or to have their employees work remotely.
• Employees have certain protections if refusal to work onsite is due to legitimate health and safety concerns.
• Under certain circumstances, a request to work remotely, rather than onsite, could constitute a request for reasonable accommodation under the ADA.
These scenarios are all very fact-specific, said Muller, who advises employers to confer with counsel for specific advice.