For many reasons, returning to the office will look different, feel different and will be communicated differently across many Central Iowa organizations in the coming weeks and months. Navigating the people-related and legal-oriented challenges surrounding the hidden hazards of what had once been the safest of work environments will require fresh thinking and flexibility from organizational leaders and managers.  

Those were among the key takeaways from a panel of four human resources experts who took part in the Business Record’s fourth Coping w/COVID panel discussion last Thursday. 

More than 300 Business Record readers viewed the webinar live last week, moderated by Chris Conetzkey, executive editor and publisher, and Joe Gardyasz, senior staff writer. The panelists included Jim Green, a principal with Mercer in Urbandale; Kelsey Knowles, attorney with Belin McCormick law firm in Des Moines; Beth Nigut, chief people officer with EMC Insurance; and Drew McLellan, owner of McLellan Marketing Group. 

Look for an article detailing some of the significant takeaways from the event. 

Meanwhile, if you weren’t able to join the webinar, here at a glance are the panelists’ responses to the opening question: What is the biggest challenge that organizations face in returning to the workplace? The YouTube video can be found here

Green: I think it depends on where the organization finds themselves in kind of one of three phases, whether it’s still developing the response, figuring out the return to work, or coming up with a way to reinvent how they’re going to review work and utilize their people. More specifically, I think the biggest issue within all of those three phases is balancing economics with empathy for your employees, because not all employees are going to be able to handle returning to work in the same way. So it’s going to be a challenge.

Knowles: I think there are obviously a lot of interesting legal issues that are facing us right now. One of the biggest challenges, I think, as we go into this reopening phase for office environments is having to navigate legal issues that offices aren’t used to dealing with. One of the big challenges is having to start dealing with things like OSHA, and what those sorts of rules mean in an office environment where, generally speaking, we consider ourselves to be in safe environments. How will those interact and how do we deal with employees who don’t feel like it’s safe to come to work? And so those sorts of challenges are just a lot different than what a manufacturer might be used to dealing with on a regular basis.

Nigut: From my vantage point as the chief people officer, one of the areas that I oversee is human resources. Our guiding factor is really the health and safety of our team members at all times. And what we’re looking at is just the myriad of moving targets, but we’re keeping up to date and being mindful of the local and state regulations that are at play. We have offices in many different states and communities, so we’re really wanting to make sure that we’re keeping up to date with those with the information that’s coming out from the different dependence of public health within those states. … Right now we’ve got about 97% of our workforce that is able to work from home. As we take a look at being able to do our business — are we able to have a more of a slow and deliberate pace with respect to what a return to office might look like? And then, even in the midst of a mindset of returning to the office initially, trying to be proactive in terms of thinking several steps ahead about what a second peak might look like in any of our given geographic locations. So there are a lot of those varying factors that are at play. 

McLellan: I think one of the challenges that makes this a very unique situation is that there is no [one] right way to do this. The right way for a 12-person office is very different from a 1,200-person office. We’re dealing with facts, but even those are not universally shared. And we’re dealing with everybody’s emotions. So from a communication standpoint, we’re all going to be going back to work at different times and in different ways. And we have to be able to communicate all of that. And in terms of communicating with our employees and our clients or our customers. We also have to be able to communicate the factual “how” we’re going to do this. We have to also deal with the emotional impact of how the employees feel by coming back. Some are super-excited to come back; some are afraid to come back. How do you deal with all of those entities and communicate through all of that? So while there are a lot of things that are not absolute, the one thing I will tell you that I believe is absolute is we cannot over-communicate to our own team because it will take multiple iterations of anything we say for it to get through. 

Although there are no clear-cut answers, some guidelines and pathways are beginning to emerge. 

On Friday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance for office buildings for organizations to consider when bringing their workers back to the office.

Additionally, here are results from an ongoing survey of U.S. companies conducted by Mercer that highlights the positions that its client companies have taken in response to COVID-19. The results shown represent data from 720 companies that have responded to the survey so far.

Watch the Youtube video here.