Employee at desk smiling

Recalling Staff To The Office Requires Careful Consideration
by Alexis D. James with contribution from Dr. Jeremy Lurey

I am an employment attorney who has been advising California companies throughout the pandemic on their legal obligations related to COVID-19. At times, I have felt like the school nurse, telling managers how to screen employees for COVID symptoms and when to send them home. At other times, I have advised about leave requirements for parents whose childcare was closed, or notification procedures for outbreaks. As the rules came out with dizzying speed, our firm gave the advisements and heard the groans from exasperated business owners.

Thankfully, we are entering a new phase of the recovery, as California is set to remove its tiered system and fully reopen on June 15, 2021. However, we are noticing that there is a palpable shift in the dynamic between business owners and employees, especially those who have worked remotely and are now being called back to their offices. It is a shift that is causing tension, anxiety, and some anger, as owners have to make the tough choice about if and when to recall their staff. In response, the staff have various feelings about those decisions. Here’s a snapshot of what I mean:

Rebecca owns a CPA firm. She respects and trusts her employees (with a few concerns over productivity at varying times throughout the year). She loved when the office was humming along and her employees collaborated on solving client problems or shared a story about their recent trip to Disneyland. She believes she can keep everyone safe, but the fears of potential liability keep her up at night, and she worries about morale dropping if employees are upset at having to leave the comforts of their own homes.

Shelly is happy in her sweatpants and walking her dog, Freddo, at lunch. She submits all her reports on time, participates in all zoom meetings with enthusiasm, and is a real team player. She does not want to come back to the office because she knows all about coworker John.

John has been posting pictures on Facebook all weekend from his son’s little league games and it does not look like he is wearing a mask around 40 other people. John cannot wait to come back to the office and hug all his friends. He is so sick of being home. His productivity, if he’s being honest, has been less than stellar the last four months.

Singh lost a parent to COVID-19. He does not go out at all and has been in mourning for months. He is okay with coming back to work, so long as everyone takes the COVID protocols seriously, but he has deep feelings about this pandemic. If someone calls the pandemic a hoax at work, it would be like a knife to the heart.

Gena is 67 years old. She got her COVID-19 vaccine and her card game with girlfriends has resumed; however, she does not want to come back to work unless Rebecca makes the vaccine mandatory for everyone. If Rebecca allows non-vaccinated employees in the office, she may explore her options for not returning.

Sound familiar? All the various viewpoints have merit, at least to each employer and employee. So, what should employers consider before they fling open the doors and restock the Keurig machine?

  1. Define Your “WHY.” What is the intended reason for calling everyone back to the office? “Because I said so” will likely not fly with your employees. Give your staff honest reasons why you believe a return to the office will be beneficial to the work and the culture. Take stock of your employees’ feelings and do a cost-benefit analysis of which model will work for you: a full return, a hybrid model, staying remote.

Dr. Jeremy Lurey, an organizational psychologist and executive coach with Plus Delta Consulting, shares the following for you to consider when making this decision:

After spending this past year “safer at home,” bringing your employees “back to work” can have significant implications for your teams and especially your organizational cultures. Be sure to use objective data when determining exactly when and how to transition back and especially what to tell your employees. For example, if your work is truly being impacted by working remotely, clearly demonstrate the impact for your team. Have your production numbers dropped? Have you received customer complaints about service delays? Or perhaps you’ve experienced turnover and retention issues because team members feel isolated or not supported. Don’t bring everyone back just because you’re an extrovert and you miss the water cooler conversations with your colleagues. That subjective, or emotional, approach may be the quickest way to lose everyone’s respect and increase resistance during what is still a confusing and stressful time for many.

  1. Identify Your Hazards. Cal/OSHA has implemented a number of regulations for most businesses to follow, which require implementation of a COVID-19 written prevention program. One of the aims of this program is for business owners to investigate, identify, and address hazards within the worksite for reducing the spread of and knowing how to respond in the case of a COVID-19 case or outbreak. Before you bring people back, you will need to answer questions, such as: Will you screen your staff, visitors, and vendors when they enter the office? Can you maintain social distancing at each workstation? How many people can you safely place in the conference room?
  2. Communicate. It’s important to communicate your safety protocols to your staff. It is one thing to go through the exercise of creating your written prevention program, it is quite another to demonstrate to your staff that you have taken the necessary precautions to create a safe work environment. Think of your most fearful employee; what can you say to that person to demonstrate that you have put their health at the forefront of your mind? Update employees in writing as regulations change. Train your staff on how to prevent the spread (this is a component of the Cal/OSHA regulations).
  3. Enforce Your Safety Guidelines. One of the biggest areas of liability that we see right now are employers who say one thing but do another. If the rule is that masks have to be worn when sitting in the conference room, then enforce that rule equally. Employees notice and comment when the rules are not enforced, and business owners who do not take their concerns seriously and take some adversarial action toward those employees are walking themselves straight into a lawsuit.
  4. Assign a Safety Officer. Your safety officer should be there to follow the constantly changing guidelines and answer employee concerns. If you are running the business and cannot be searching all the agency websites for the latest regulatory changes, then assign that task to someone in the office or work with counsel who can do that for you. There is a lot of confusion when the CDC announces guidance but state or local public health departments do not update their safety frameworks or if they instead want to take a stricter view. In California you must follow the strictest guideline that applies to your location.
  5. Listen to Your Employees’ ConcernsObjections and Potential Need for Accommodation. Remember that everyone’s view of COVID-19 and its impact on their lives is different, so exercise compassion and understanding and know your employees’ rights. For example, if Gena, the 67-year-old employee has underlying health conditions, she may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation if she presents you with a doctor’s note.

According to Dr. Lurey, you might even consider asking your employees how they think and feel about returning to the office before starting the process. Some might love the idea of getting back together again. Others might have legitimate reasons to continue working from home a while longer, or perhaps indefinitely. This is where your virtual teaming capabilities come into consideration if your employees are in fact highly productive at home.

You may not be able to accommodate everyone’s wants and desires, but listening and validating their individual viewpoints will go a long way toward making them feel like valued members of the team.

  1. Be Flexible Yet Firm. Once you have listened to everyone’s concerns, make your decisions based on objective criteria that is founded on following regulations and is also fair across the board. Don’t bend to the whim of your employees, or you will be creating unintended inequities that could be the basis of a discrimination lawsuit.
  2. When in Doubt, Call Your Counsel. This is a trying time, but with some patience, advice on which rules to follow and open communication, we can all “get back to business.”

Alexis James, Managing Partner, at WorkWise Law, PC, has practiced employment law on both sides of the equation for more than 16 years. She has brought hundreds of cases to successful resolution; however, she most enjoys providing advice and counsel to small- and medium-sized business owners who want to do right by their employees and reduce their risks of unnecessary litigation. Alexis is a frequent speaker on employment law topics for groups, including the Los Angeles County Medical Association, Physical Therapy Provider Network, HR Star Conference, PIHRA, and CalCPA. For more information on how to get your business into employment law compliance, please contact Alexis at (818) 591-6724 or at alexis@workwiselaw.com.

Dr. Jeremy Lurey, President & CEO of Plus Delta Consulting, is a talented business psychologist and performance coach who helps his clients identify their key objectives and take the necessary actions to achieve those goals. With 25 years of progressive experience as a consultant, Jeremy serves clients ranging from families of significant wealth to mid-market companies to Fortune 500 corporations. He has deep experience in change management, talent management, process improvement, strategic planning, succession planning, leadership and team development, and family business. For more information, please contact Jeremy at (310) 589-4612 or at jslurey@plusdelta.net.


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