Why health needs to be HR’s No. 1 priority amid return-to-work plans

Reopening the workplace in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic is a point of discussion for many employers. But a number of challenges make the effort more difficult: COVID numbers are on the rise, employees are scared to return to an office environment, and nearly a quarter of employees are at risk for serious complications from COVID-19 if infected.

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“With asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic carriers, combined with the lack of a vaccine, employers are navigating an array of challenges as they implement measures to keep employees as safe as possible,” says David Osborne, chief executive officer of Virgin Pulse, a wellness company.

Meanwhile, he says, employees are navigating COVID-19 and work-from-home in different ways. “They have unique needs, anxieties and concerns right now and require support in different ways.”

Suffice to say, employers–and HR leaders–have a huge responsibility to help, especially as they consider bringing some workers back into the workplace, Osborne says. Their No. 1 priority, he says, should be keeping employees safe.

Osborne spoke to HRE about why HR managers should lead safety efforts, why they should be flexible with employees’ desires and comfort levels, and how digital tools can help.

HRE: The conversation for many employers now is about how to return employees to the workplace, and HR leaders are a big part of this discussion. Why and how can HR executives be leaders in helping with the transition back to work?

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David Osborne

Osborne: HR executives can and should be the leaders in transitioning employees back to the workplace. They must hold their organizations accountable for responding and adapting in real-time to the needs of employees–whether they are in the workplace or working from home–while minimizing disruption. As the culture ambassadors of their organizations, HR leaders have an opportunity and responsibility to shape this experience in a positive way for employees and the organization and should partner with their health, wellbeing and safety peers across the organization to build a comprehensive and integrated return-to-the workplace strategy.

HRE: What should they do?

Osborne: HR leaders need to be prepared to meet employees where they are and support them according to their specific experiences and needs. Beyond the basics of preparing the workplace for employees to return, like social distancing guidelines, protective gear, sanitization stations, temperature checks, new protocols for meeting spaces, kitchens, keypads, visitors and updated floor plans–HR leaders can ease the transition for employees by showing empathy, listening to your organization, overcommunicating intentionally and regularly, proactively educating employees about their benefits and giving employees digital tools.

HRE: Having empathy and listening to employees have been advised by a number of experts recently. How should HR leaders do that, exactly?

Osborne: Hold regular listening sessions, conduct pulse surveys and encourage managers to meet with their teams and one-on-one to understand how employees are feeling about returning to work. What concerns and stressors are top of mind for them? What would make them feel safe returning to the workplace? What support do they need right now?

Be sensitive to the fact that employees’ needs will vary and understand that employees are not all on the same page with regard to returning to work. Some may want to return to the office ASAP, while others may be uncomfortable doing so for the foreseeable future–and that’s OK.

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HRE: What about digital tools? We are seeing a lot pop up, like Virgin Pulse’s VP Passport. Why do you think digital tools are important and useful for employers in helping employees return to the workplace?

Osborne: Technology fuels the modern consumer experience. Due to an increase in consumer-focused experiences in other parts of their lives, thanks to the Amazons and Ubers of the world, consumers have grown to expect the same convenience, personalization, speed, transparency and security in their healthcare experiences as employees. They are increasingly demanding digital and user-friendly pathways that let them easily manage all aspects and stages of their healthcare experience.

Related: Solutions and strategies to ease the return-to-workplace

Giving employees digital tools to keep them connected during transition and to help them assess their readiness to go back into the office–and to feel safe doing so–is important. Activity challenges are a great way to foster engagement, camaraderie, social connection and healthy competition while employees are working from home.

HRE: We know focusing on employees’ physical health is important now, especially when it comes to talking about bringing employees back to the workplace, but it also extends into other areas of wellness.

Osborne: Yes, it’s important to recognize that while physical safety is top of mind for employers and employees, organizations and HR leaders must also recognize and support employees’ mental, emotional, financial and social health and psychological safety. The stress and uncertainty employees are experiencing right now is taking a massive toll on all aspects of health and wellbeing–mental health, sleep, nutrition, financial health and physical health. The health and wellbeing impact of what we are experiencing today will reverberate for the next several years and will directly impact employee engagement, productivity and performance. Health, wellbeing and safety must be the top priority for organizations.

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.