Coronavirus (COVID-19)

At the End of the Rainbow: Looking Past COVID-19

Last March, in a matter of days, most U.S. employers went from doing business as usual to fully or partially shutting down. At the same time, we watched the stock market tank and wondered if we would ever return to normal.

One way or another, most employers regrouped and reenvisioned how they conducted their businesses, and employees adapted to working from home with kids attending school virtually. Now that we see light at the end of the tunnel, it’s worthwhile to consider what the new normal may be like when we finally reach herd immunity.

Future
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Vaccine is Here

Now that the vaccine has arrived, we know the end is in sight. Whether it will be June, July, or August, it’s now just a matter of when and not if. I was lucky enough to get vaccinated and will be theoretically immune on March 3. I can tell you the feeling of knowing this will be over for me in five weeks is incredible (though mask wearing will still be necessary because the vaccine doesn’t necessarily stop people from transmitting the disease).

The vaccine has changed everything and will end the pandemic. Employers will have to decide whether to mandate employees either get vaccinated or be terminated. Some states, such as Wisconsin, are already contemplating laws prohibiting employers from mandating vaccinations.

To me, given the vaccines’ almost nonexistent negative side effects, it seems draconian to prohibit employers from requiring employees to be vaccinated (assuming they have access to the shots). The employee has a choice: Get vaccinated, or find another job. That seems reasonable given the Achilles’ heel with COVID-19 has always been that most people don’t know they have the disease until they’ve already spread it.

Most employers would greatly benefit by requiring employees to get vaccinated, and the vaccines eventually will allow companies to eliminate social distancing, masks, and hand sanitizer.

Is it Real or is it Memorex?

While some employers made use of Skype, Zoom, or Microsoft Teams before COVID-19, the lockdowns pushed everyone to become more tech-savvy and use the platforms to conduct virtual meetings on a whole new scale. Now that employers have seen their travel expenses plummet, it’s safe to say going on trips for in-person meetings will be significantly less common.

We’ve learned to communicate and share information without being face-to-face. Zoom won’t completely eliminate the need for travel, but we’ve learned that in some situations, the virtual meetings are actually more productive and informative.

Toward that end, will employers require employees working from home to return to the office immediately? In the past, bosses were fearful of employees working from home because they rightfully believed workers may be less productive when wearing pajamas.

Now that employers have a fairly comprehensive control group of teleworking employees to compare to in-office staffers, you’re in a position to see how and what works in terms of allowing people to work from home. It also opens up the possibility you can recruit from a much larger employee base.

Just yesterday, one of my clients had an employee ask to move to Hawaii because she is working virtually. Obviously, you’ll need to consider the transactional costs of allowing employees to work from various states because of the differences in state and local laws and the varying insurance requirements.

Unemployment

I graduated from college in 1984. Unemployment at the time was very high. Since then, except for the recession in 2008, we haven’t seen any sustained long-term unemployment levels. The low jobless rates created huge challenges and turnover for employers because many times the choice was between keeping an underperforming employee or terminating the person and either not finding a replacement or replacing her with someone with even worse skills.

It appears relatively certain that while the COVID-19 outbreak may end as quickly as it began, the recovery will be much slower than from 2008. Whole industries such as restaurants, hotels, and airlines have been decimated. Many of the industries won’t readily return to business as usual, in part simply because we have accelerated our transition to life in a virtual world.

Employers will likely be in a more favorable position to choose more qualified candidates and retain more competent employees. You’ll continue to face great challenges, however, as employees face outside calamities because of what will likely be a very slow and painful economic recovery.

Bottom Line

While the COVID-19 outbreak is clearly continuing to rage, 2021 won’t be a repeat of 2020. We will wake up relatively soon, and the pandemic will have ended almost as suddenly as it began. You should start thinking and planning now about how to manage your workforces, office space, and businesses as we return to a new normal.

Thankfully, as much as 2020 was at times like living in a disaster movie, it brought out virtues, creativity, and strengths that had been overlooked while everyone operated by doing business as usual. Necessity is the mother of invention. And as we transition to a post-COVID-19 world, we shouldn’t lose sight of the inventiveness we learned, and we should use the tools to create a better and healthier workplace.

Saul Glazer is a partner with Axley Brynelson, LLP, in Madison, Wisconsin. He can be reached at sglazer@axley.com.