Choice Stories

July 21, 2021

Return to Work: One Employer’s Response

Effective June 15, 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom terminated emergency orders that put the state under restrictions as part of its response to COVID-19. Mandates concerning physical distancing, capacity limits on businesses, and the county tier (color-coding) system have ended. The California Department of Public Health has issued new guidance concerning the use of face coverings, requirements for “mega events” (with 5,000 or more attendees), and requirements for public schools.

Employers statewide are implementing different approaches to reopening. Some have fully reopened; some have announced plans to maintain remote-work arrangements with some or all of their workforce; others are implementing a hybrid approach, with employees returning to work for a portion of the week, while continuing to work remotely on some days.

We recently interviewed Flor Real, the Human Resources Director at The Word & Brown Companies, to learn more about what her organization is doing as workers return to the office (after a majority of staff has worked remotely for 15 months). Flor has been the organization’s HR Director since October 2019. She has more than 20 years of HR management experience in various industries, including health and human services, education, and manufacturing. Flor’s passion is health and safety in the workplace. She attends annual OSHA trainings to stay up to date on changes in safety regulations for workplace compliance. She is a proud member of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Below is a summary of our recent interview.

How did COVID-19 impact your company, both from an operations and culture standpoint?

At the beginning of the pandemic, like many businesses, our Executive Leadership team at The Word & Brown Companies was faced with the challenge of making quick business decisions that would have an impact on our operations and culture to ensure the safety of our employees and business continuity.

It was decided to deploy our business continuity plan and allow more than 95% of our staff to work 100% remotely. The entire company pulled together to ensure we made this operational change happen without an interruption of the business. We did this very successfully. 

With respect to our culture, like many family-owned businesses, we are proud of the fun and family- oriented culture that we have built since 1985. During the pandemic, we wanted to make sure we maintained our culture despite the challenges we faced while physically distant. The Human Resources department planned many, almost monthly, virtual activities for our staff to keep us connected and engaged. 

The staff sent a Health & Wellness communication every Friday to remind staff we are in this pandemic together, and that no one is alone. Additionally, individual departments planned virtual team building events, virtual staff meetings, and attended virtual conferences to remain connected with each other and with our industry. 

Describe the policies you put in place to address any challenges that arose.

We implemented new COVID-19 Office Safety Guidelines with respect to handling possible exposures in the workplace, and new office safety guidelines regarding sick time and requirements around social distancing, face coverings, room capacities, facility cleaning, sanitization schedules, etc. We also put a policy in place where employees and management had one point of contact (the HR Director) to report possible exposures, and/or if they had any questions with respect to COVID-19 Office safety procedures. 

Have employees expressed hesitation/concern over returning to work?

After surveying our staff, more than 70% stated they preferred working remotely rather than returning to the office. 

What are common employee concerns and how are you addressing them?

The staff did not list any specific concerns, but, rather, expressed a preference in working from home, which has provided for them a better work/life balance. Our Executive Leadership team addressed this concern by implementing a “Work from Home Policy.” Our employees could choose to come in to the office or continue to work from home, and in some cases based on business needs, the manager could request the employee come in to the office up to two days per week. This new policy will allow us to optimize productivity, while offering employees the flexibility of a healthier work/life balance. We expect to welcome more employees back to work on-site in mid-July.

Does your company have a “Safe Return to Work” plan?

Yes, in fact we called ours the “Safe Return to the Office” plan.

Please describe your process for formulating the plan.

I worked with the Executive Vice President of Human Resources and Executive Vice President of Marketing to create the Safe Return to the Office plan referencing Governor Newsom’s State of California Road to Recovery Plan, as well the CDC guidelines. Once we developed the draft plan, we sent it to a select group of management staff to provide input for clarity of understanding and operational effectiveness. 

What advice do you have for other employers working to safely transition employees back to the office?

The advice I would offer other employers as they are safely transitioning their employees back to the office is to consider employees’ desires about returning to the office. It is important to balance those desires with your business needs and strategy. In other words, optimize business productivity with the flexibility of healthier work/life balance by allowing employees to work a hybrid office and remote schedule. 

Also, be ready for your employees to return safely to the office by developing a “Safe Return to the Office” plan that is communicated clearly to all employees. Your employees must know that the company is concerned with their ongoing safety, and is prepared for their safe return. The only way to do this is staying on top of all the COVID-19 safety guidelines delineated by Cal/OSHA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whichever is more stringent to ensure the health and safety of all employees.    

Additional tools and information: The State of California offers guidance and a variety of resources through its COVID19.CA.GOV website, including information on:

  • Safely reopening
  • Vax for the Win, California’s vaccine incentive program
  • Vaccines, including links to schedule an appointment
  • Mask guidance
  • Travel recommendations
  • Financial assistance
  • Food and food assistance
  • Business and employer resources

The California Department of Industrial Relations also offers Cal/OSHA COVID-19 guidance and resources on its website.

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