Bringing employees back to work in the coronavirus reopening
Businesses that are reopening, or expanding from a skeleton crew, are finding employees sometimes hard to bring back to work. The most successful companies develop a flexible strategy for reemployment of their workers.
Why won’t employees come back? A variety of reasons includes unemployment benefits, child care, health and safety and plain old inertia. Most of theses can be overcome, but not easily.
Right now unemployment benefits provide more money than working for employees who earn less than about $30 a hour. (The exact amount varies from state to state.) The bonus payments of $600 a week end on July 31, but until then, not working is better financially for a lot of people.
Child care is a challenge for parents. Not only are schools closed, but many summer camps and day cares are closed. Work-arounds may be available, but the options vary from family to family.
Some workers may be afraid of catching Covid-19 in the workplace. This fear is more common among older workers, but some younger people have health issues that place them at higher risk. A person may appear to be perfectly healthy but have legitimate health concerns the employer doesn’t know about. And fear is an emotional response, not just a scientific assessment, so some low-risk workers may dread returning to the job site..
Inertia may delay some people’s return to the workplace. They have started new routines, they are comfortable, so don’t feel an urgency to get back to the job.
Employers cannot solve all of these problems, but they can do a lot to bring workers back. And the process of helping workers come back will identify those very unlikely to return, so the manager will know how many new hires to find.
Communication is the critical first step. (This could be written about any number of employment issues, of course.) Well before the reopening or expansion, the manager should be on the phone with every employee. In these calls, company plans will be explained. The most important part of the conversation, however, are the questions: How are you doing? Any worries or concerns about coming back to work? Eager or hesitant to work?
The call is also a chance to have relaxed conversations. Often a hectic workday prevents a manager from getting to know employees well. Good understanding of individual employees is critical to retention.
Those employees worried about health should be asked their opinions about ways to make the job site safer. Rather than the manager reading off a list of changes, ask the employee for suggested safety measures. In some cases, the manager can say the item is on the list. In others, the manager may need to take it under advisement, or reply that the idea was considered but not chosen to be implemented it for particular reasons. Some employees will be reassured of the company’s commitment to safety. (If the conversation fails to reassure the employee, the company may not be thinking clearly enough about the problem, though it’s also possible that some employees simply cannot be reassured.)
Child care concerns can sometimes be met through flexible scheduling, though that’s not always feasible. Even if the manager cannot solve the problem, understanding the employee’s issue helps identify workers unlikely to return.
The conversation with employees can end with a discussion of purpose. People want to do useful things. A company’s purpose is not just making money. A convenience store “helps people get on with their day.” Walmart’s purpose, according to Sam Walton, is “to save people money so they can live better.” Every business helps people, either directly or indirectly. Employees are more dedicated to their work when business leaders remind them of their purpose.
Back in the good old days of 2019, the U.S. labor market was tight, with record low unemployment. The demographic driver of the tight market will not only continue, but worsen. Baby boomers are retiring, and the next generation doesn’t match their size. Foreign migration could hold the size of the working-age population steady, but the Covid-19 pandemic is severely slowing down movement of people into this country. The challenge of getting workers back on the job in 2020 is just the beginning of a long, hard slog getting workers in the decade of the 2020s. A plan that begins with talking to employees will distinguish the most successful businesses from those destined to fail.