April 2020 | 

Rethinking HR Policies with the Coronavirus

Rethinking HR Policies with the Coronavirus

Remote work is nothing new. A recent global survey found that 70 percent of the full-time workforce works outside the office at least one day a week. There are good reasons for employers to encourage them to do so, including higher rates of productivity, lower attrition, and real estate savings. But there are downsides too, including a widespread lack of clear and consistent policies that leave local managers with the decision of who can work remotely.

“Today’s emphasis on preventing the spread of the coronavirus by working from home is making this problem even more apparent,” says Wharton management professor Peter Cappelli. “Employees are hearing advice from government officials at every level to help ‘flatten the curve’ by staying away from the workplace, and that is challenging organizations’ current, mostly arbitrary employee management approaches. The coronavirus pandemic is making it clear that organizations should develop and enforce objective policies on which jobs can be done remotely and under what circumstances.”

Those policies should be grounded not just on what is required during the current crisis, but on what will work best long term for companies and their employees, says Cappelli, who teaches in the CEO Academy® and other programs. Because the option to work from home is available to some but not all white-collar workers, policies need to be transparent. They should also provide guidelines about when and for how long remote work can be done. “It can’t be indefinite,” says Cappelli, “since at some point most employees will need resources from their peers or at their offices.”

The current crisis is also highlighting a second practice, “replacement planning,” that must be rethought. Typically, when an employee with a crucial job is sick, employers cover the work by splitting up tasks among other employees. If that doesn’t work, they hire additional staff.

Today, though, multiple jobs are likely to go unfilled at the same time, so stretching remaining employees is unlikely to work. Hiring from the outside or even using temps is unlikely to work as well, since all organizations will face the same staffing challenge.

“Management needs a plan that defines which jobs are crucial, including ones that can’t be done from home,” says Cappelli. “The plan should outline who will step in to fill them, ideally giving employees the chance to see if they can handle bigger roles.”

What about employees who aren’t sick, or who feel sick because of the overwhelming amount of information about the coronavirus (even if their symptoms don’t match those of COVID-19, the disease it causes)? “The truth is that so long as authorities are not requiring people to stay home, going to work may be no more dangerous than other activities we are doing, such as grocery shopping. Nevertheless, many workers are feeling anxiety about going to work right now,” says Cappelli.

“Trying to prevent employees from staying home with formal rules is unlikely to work,” he continues. “A better approach would begin with asking employees for their help during this crisis. To get that help, employees must know that their employer is doing its best to keep them healthy while at work, and that the company can’t stay in business in the long run if its employees don’t come in.”

Cappelli says employers that have honest relationships with their workers will likely find that their employees won’t stay home unless they truly need to. But if they don’t think their employer cares about them, they could take off more time than they really need to.

“This is new terrain for all involved, and it can be extremely helpful for employees to have guidance from their employers as to what is expected,” he says. “Under normal circumstances, for instance, it’s not good for employees to complain about the hygiene of their coworkers or go to supervisors when they think someone might have virus symptoms. But right now that would be desirable behavior, so it is important to let employees know these new, and hopefully temporary, rules.”

Because we can expect crises like the current pandemic to recur with greater frequency, employers should now be rethinking the kind of relationship they want to have with their workers. “If it’s not one where employers and employees are looking out for each other,” says Cappelli, “then perhaps it’s time to get that in order before we need each other in the next crisis.”