Armanino Partner Jenn McCabe, one of our COVID-19 Rapid Response Team leaders, has fielded hundreds of calls from businesses about how they can best ramp back up following shelter in place. All of them continue to grapple with how to ensure their employees safely return to work. Questions at the top of their minds are “When is the right time?” “What is the right plan?” and “How do I mitigate risk?”
While the recent spike in cases has slowed down a lot of reopening plans, it is more important than ever that companies prepare to bring people back safely. To help, our Data & Analytics team has been constantly sourcing data and design tools that can empower businesses to make more informed decisions. They recently added yet another element to our COVID Recovery Tracker, which provides seven- and 14-day percentages of positive test results state by state to help businesses see what is happening in spurts, not just cumulatively.
As businesses continue to contemplate how to move forward, Jenn worked with our Data & Analytics team to design a Return-to-Work Readiness App that tracks and monitors the health of employees and readiness of office space. We recently had a Zoom session with Jenn to learn more about how data and technology are being used and what advice she has as companies navigate their return to work.
What are you hearing from the businesses you are speaking with? What are their biggest concerns?
When questions first started coming in, people were mostly asking for HR help, including new travel and safety policies and what to tell employees who were asking for leave. It started there and very quickly became an accounting issue. They started coming to us with questions about how to budget for thermometer guns or face masks.
We realized early on that these safety solutions, while not bad, were going to be impractical from a risk perspective. Companies that do use temperature checks may be opening themselves up to risk by exposing the temperature takers, not to mention the decline in productivity from pulling someone away from their day-to-day tasks. Plus, the temperature takers are often not writing down the data.
If someone does come into your office and gets sick, there is going to be a lot of finger pointing about whose fault that is. Is it the individual’s fault because they walked in or is it your fault because you let them in? So, we realized employers needed to get people back in a way that makes them feel safe, but that also protects the employer in the event of a claim.
How does technology help businesses mitigate risk as they return to work?
The Return-to-Work Readiness App that our Data & Analytics team has developed can augment the temperature takers in a way that collects data and protects your company. Or, if you don’t want to use the temperature taking process, it can still provide you with the information you need to keep your workers safe.
Because employees self-report on temperatures and symptoms, companies can train staff to check in before they leave the house, preventing them from arriving at the office and discovering at the door that they have an elevated temperature. This won’t stop everything, since we now know that people can be carriers of the virus and not appear sick, but it will certainly mitigate risk since you can show you have a preventive measure in place.
Additionally, it protects employee privacy because data is saved to an auditable, secure location only accessible by your HR team members, who best know how to communicate with and manage employees who fail to meet return-to-work requirements. If someone calls in sick, HR staff can run a confidential report to see who was in the office working with them in the past two days and can communicate with anyone who may have been exposed appropriately, quickly and safely.
There is also an element in the app that integrates with Microsoft’s Workplace Scheduler to allow employees to reserve a desk or work location. This helps socially distance people. Beyond offices, we also have churches and theaters asking for help in thinking through how to seat family groups together.
But it’s not just about the technology itself. Yes, you can just get an app, but there are so many other elements we can help businesses with or direct them on who to talk to. We really encourage companies to seek out a combination of technology and advisory services.
What about businesses that don’t want to return to the office? How are you advising them?
Some companies have decided they aren’t going back. That may be because they are unable to make it and, in that case, we can help them with a restructure or wind-down. Or we can renegotiate on their behalf out of their long-term loan obligations.
Other times companies have determined they’re going to keep employees working remotely long term. If that’s the case, there are a lot of state and local tax issues to consider. A lot of people are calling us because they have employees now working permanently in new states. We talk to them about what that means from a benefits perspective, what it means from the angle of both owners and employees now having to file taxes in that state, the implications for getting business licenses and insurance there, etc.
Business owners tend to think they are going to save a lot of money on rent by allowing everyone to telecommute for good, but it can get expensive in other ways.
Earlier you mentioned assisting companies with travel and leave policies. Any best practices you can share?
We continue to counsel clients on travel and leave policies, and it’s tough. It’s hard to balance being a good steward of your employees and a good business practitioner. But there is a difference between purely HR strategy and good business strategy.
For example, if you have an employee who travels to a country that has any health risks, as reported and tracked by the CDC, they need to report that travel and not come to work for 14 days. For businesses where remote work isn’t feasible, that may mean the employee is on an unpaid leave for two weeks. Well, what if it was personal travel and was necessary to see a family member who was very sick, and they need the money? So, suddenly, we are having to write policies that communicate these things to employees in a way that is sensitive and makes them understand but also protects the business.
Any last advice you’d give based on your own experiences?
All companies must have at least new interim policies immediately and have a strategy for handling the pandemic. Before developing a specific plan, organizations need to determine whether they’ll continue to work at their usual office or disperse their staff, and if they’ll sell in the usual channels or find new distribution channels. From there, they can budget and change their policies and operations.