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At the start of 2020, we first heard news of a mysterious virus spreading internationally. As a digital-health company, we were closely monitoring the news, and on February 25, 2020 when San Francisco’s Mayor London Breed and the CDC proactively told the world to prepare for the worst, we formed a task force that included leaders and medical doctors on our team. The task force members began to keep us updated as new information became available. At the rate the illness was spreading, it seemed like everyone would eventually catch it.
As case numbers and death rates around the world continued climbing at an alarming rate, California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency. Then came the hardest decision I ever made for my company. After extensive talks with our leadership team, on March 6, we decided to shut down our office. This was before the WHO declared coronavirus a pandemic and non-essential businesses in San Francisco were ordered to shut down — which made moving to fully remote work an even bigger risk.
Valuing employee health
A huge factor that played into our decision to close the office was the data we were seeing and the health and safety of our employees. As Covid-19 continued spreading, there was a lot at stake. We didn’t want to endanger our workers by asking them to continue coming into the office. I thought about the worst-case scenarios. What would happen if an employee caught the virus on the job? What if it cost someone’s life? These scenarios were devastating to consider, and it made the most sense to keep our employees home, where they and their families would be safe.
As we announced the switch to remote work, we told our employees to grab from the office what they needed for the next three weeks. We assumed we would be back on site by then. No one could have predicted how the situation would actually play out. Three weeks turned into three months, and eventually into 15 months.
A hybrid approach
After vaccines became available and local cases went down, we conducted a survey internally to understand the sentiments of our employees. We asked whether they felt comfortable going to work and what their home and family situations looked like. After evaluating the results, we decided it was safe enough to open our office and make it optional for employees and also suggest using a hybrid approach indefinitely. Starting June 1, employees who wanted to return onsite could come back. We also kept the option to work from home in case people still weren’t fully comfortable working in person.
It was important for us to allow flexibility because each employee has different circumstances. Using a hybrid approach lets employees select the days that work best for them. Some employees enjoy working onsite every day while others prefer a mix of both. We wanted to be accommodating so that each person could choose the option that was most comfortable for him or her.
The past year has been filled with challenges and hard choices. As we made tough decisions, we kept public health and our employees’ safety and best interests in mind. Despite the hurdles we faced transitioning our operations during the pandemic, we learned some valuable lessons along the way.
1. Use data
When we first decided to switch to fully remote work, we made the decision based on data from the local government where we have offices and the CDC and WHO. We kept an eye on numbers and patterns as Covid-19 spread. This data informed us and really made clear that the virus was a threat. We knew we needed to act quickly.
When we decided to open our office again, we again based this decision on numbers. As cases declined and vaccines offered some protection, we saw the risks were getting smaller and smaller. Our internal survey also showed us what our workers really wanted and allowed us to take their considerations into mind. Even now, as the Delta variant is spreading, we’re continually watching the numbers so that we can be prepared for the next steps and use reliable data to inform our choices. Although we planned to welcome all employees back after Labor Day, the rise of the Delta variant suggested we should push the date back yet again.
2. Think about your team
Our decisions during the pandemic have consistently centered around our employees. When you feel anxiety from your team, you know you need to listen to their concerns. This is a big part of creating an environment where our workers feel secure and protected. This can only happen if you have compassion and care for their livelihoods. It’s vital to create a sense of safety at work and promote employees’ health and emotional wellbeing, especially during periods of stress or unpredictability.
If you notice that your team is feeling worried or uncertain, ask how you can help. Think about ways to promote positive workplace culture and help teams better socialize and adapt to new situations. At the end of the day, your team is your most valuable asset. Make decisions with them in mind and strive to create a workplace — whether remote or in-person — that makes them feel cared for, supported and heard.
3. Think about what resources you can provide
There is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Many employees have special circumstances. Employees that have health issues, children, are caregivers or have extended family living with them can complicate coming back to the office. Although we know more about Covid than we did in March 2020, we still cannot take it for granted. The last year and a half has shown that the way we support employees’ mental health, wellness and flexibility is extremely important. Our company looked at our own products to help employees with chronic insomnia. We added coaching and therapy sessions for employees and their dependents along with a platform for caregivers and parents to manage their child and caregiver services. Be aware of your own organization and the needs of your employees. Although we are nowhere near the end of the pandemic, companies need to think differently about how to support their employees in our new normal.
4. Connect employees with something bigger than themselves
As the pandemic continues, we will see companies of all sizes mandating the vaccine, testing for employees and providing more options to help keep employees engaged and safe. A focus should also be on how to retain your best talent, as 48% of employees are actively searching for new opportunities. A part of that is ensuring your employees are committed to and believe in your mission. Help them see how their job can be connected to a purpose. It’s an employee market. While Covid has helped many individuals worldwide to understand what is most important to them, companies need to consider being flexible and demonstrate more compassion and care to retain top talent.