On June 10-11, the Salt Lake Chamber’s Roadmap to Recovery Coalition sponsored a two-part webinar series entitled “Return to Work: COVID-19 Employment Policies and Business Best Practices.” Part one included an overview of recommended policies and procedures from expertsーRyan Parker, chief legal product officer and Marie Kulbeth, general counsel and vice president of legal productーat Salt Lake-based  SixFifty. In part two, panelists from various industries discussed how they’ve successfully returned to work amid post-pandemic uncertainty.

Return to Work Webinar, Part One

“We are now helping over 200 companies, many in Utah, put their policies in place as they get back to the workplace,” Parker said. 

Due to COVID-19’s impact on the workplace and how it functions, policies have had to be adjusted due to new hybrid and remote work situations. SixFifty representatives highlighted how the pandemic has greatly impacted the economy, increasing unemployment and making it harder to hire new employees.

“Our economy is changing,” Kulbuth explained to the webinar attendees, many of them business administrators, “And because of that, you might want to change what policies you implement.”

One of the newer emerging policies businesses are adopting is a vaccination policy. The latest U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Guidance allows most businesses to require their employees to be vaccinated to enter the worksite if they choose. With an exception for those funded by the state, organizations can choose to require vaccinations, encourage vaccinations, or not adopt a vaccine policy at all.

“However, like other employee health information,” Parker said, “vaccination status must be kept confidential and cannot be stored in employee personal files.”

The same guidelines that allow businesses to require vaccinations also permit them to require masks and health screenings for both employees and customers. While Utah’s statewide mask mandate was lifted on April 10, different transmission, risk, and comfort levels have caused many companies to keep some safety precautions in place. In fact, some precautions have been advantageous enough that they might just become commonplace.

“It will be interesting to see how many companies decide to keep the Employee Health Screening policy,” Parker said. The screenings not only safeguard from COVID-19 transmission, but also prevent other illnesses such as the flu from spreading in the workplace.

The remainder of the first webinar discussed policies related to virtual work, such as videoconferencing, remote work and relocation. Remote work can be beneficial to a company’s utilities and rent payments, but it also comes with its unique problems. For example, it is harder to track hourly employees’ time cards when they don’t come into a physical office. 

“It is importantーeven criticalーthat employers know where their employees are working,” said Parker. He continued to explain that remote work can open the door for employees to move to different states, where state law may clash with company policy. 

Return to Work Webinar, Part Two

Remote work was also a popular theme in part two of the Return to Work webinar series. Linda Wardell, general manager of the City Creek Center, moderated a panel of five other business executives who shared their experiences of returning to work and finding a new normal for their companies and employees. Many companies have reopened their doors, but only some with employees back in-person full-time, while others remain remote or in a hybrid situation. It can be tricky for managers and other executives to know what to require or suggest while remaining considerate to their employees.

“We need to be as flexible as possible with our employees,” Wardell said, “But specific with our expectations for them.”

Sherry Jones, president and CEO of Ameritech College of Healthcare, explained that the most important return-to-work strategy for her organization was finding a rhythm between remote and in-person work. Because the majority of Ameritech College’s students have jobs in healthcare, most of them were vaccinated in early 2021. So, when it was time for Ameritech to decide what their workplace would look like, they took employees’ opinions into account.

“Most people don’t want to be exclusively remote, nor do they want to be exclusively on-ground,” Jones said.

The panel also discussed concerns that because of remote options, employees would not be in the office for valuable team-building and creative brainstorming opportunities. While there are many useful platforms and programs that allow coworkers to interact with one another, none seem to completely replace face-to-face communication, and some companies are worried about how that may affect creativity and learning.

Mountain America Credit Union CEO Sterling Nielson shared his opinion saying that from his experience most employees want to come back to the office.

“There is a human component that we have been missing during the pandemic,” Nielsen said. “Because of that, we think a lot more [people] are going to be coming back.”

Another point of discussion was balancing work and home life. Because of work-from-home options, many employees feel obligated to respond to emails and engage in other work-related activities even when they are supposed to be off the clock. Many panelists acknowledged that they were guilty of doing the same.

“When am I not at work?” Joe Cannon, COO of Young Living Essential Oils said. “I ask myself that all the time!”

Kulbuth echoed Cannon’s remarks, saying that SixFifty has had to require employees to take time off to counterbalance the extra work they have taken on during the pandemic. Not only is it stressful for the employees themselves, but it also creates unrealistic expectations that can lower productivity in the long run.

“We need to work on creating a culture where employees are not expected to be on 24/7,” Kulbuth said.

All of the panelists agreed that the best way to protect employees from overworking themselves is to be specific and clear with work expectations. Communicating policy changes and return-to-work plans are essential for maintaining employee mental wellness, another topic that was also given due consideration.

“If there’s one benefit that came out of COVID, it’s that there’s definitely a new openness about being able to talk about mental health,” said Analise Wilson, general counsel at Ivory Homes. 

Many companies provide their employees with HR packages that include free counseling opportunities. Kulbuth explained that it may be a policy worth communicating with employees to ensure they have the care they need.

“This is an opportunity to demonstrate the culture you have at your company,” agreed Cannon.

Wardell wrapped up the webinar panel with the question, “In a sentence or two, what is the biggest thing you have learned in the past year?”

Lavanya Mahate, Owner of Saffron Valley Restaurants answered, saying, “Change is constant. Being flexible is not an option, it’s a requirement.”

“I was reminded of the power of human solidarity,” Jones answered. “We’re more alike than different. As humans, when we connect, it can be powerful.