Today’s post comes to us from Workforce Institute board member Alexandra Levit.

Given that I wrote a book about the rapid transformation of work as we knew it back in 2018, people often ask me what has surprised me about how human capital is evolving today. As a Workforce Institute Board Member, I’d like to share my topline thoughts, some of which have been derived as the result of quantitative research, and others that came about through engagement with organizations and futurist groups such as the Association of Professional Futurists (APF), the Future Today Institute, the Grey Swan Guild, and the foresight certification program I recently completed with the University of Houston.

The Acceleration of What We Saw Coming

Pandemic or no pandemic, several workforce-related trends were inevitable, including the rise of the gig economy, the contract workforce, internal talent marketplaces, and talent assembly – in which teams are constructed from different types of workers to solve specific problems in hot areas of the business.

We also surmised that organizations would begin to look closely at how human capital quantitatively drives business value; the use of Big Data, analytics, and executive dashboards to determine what is and isn’t working in talent acquisition, learning, scheduling, and performance; the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to combat unconscious bias and measure productivity; and the focus on data quality, integration, and governance.

The shift in the flow of work due to new players like Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon entering the online collaboration market was expected, as was the increasing popularity of curated learning content by in-house subject matter experts, personalized course recommendations, and targeted certifications and micro-credentialing. Given the technology available today, there is no reason individuals shouldn’t upskill and reskill using all the resources at their disposal, and at their own pace and convenience.

What Has Surprised Me

There have been a few head-scratchers along the way. The first involves digital transformation. It is a bit disappointing how, during the pandemic, some organizations have simply slapped in-office processes up online. That was fine for the first six months of the crisis, but now it’s time to move on. One size doesn’t fit all. We must permanently adapt certain processes to be antifragile and an effective mix of high tech, high touch.

Also, with respect to digital transformation, it surprises me that no one is talking about what we’ll do when we are entirely dependent on technology and it breaks, what happens when it gets seriously hacked, what happens when we have bandwidth challenges and access inequity, what happens when there are too many systems and usability and adoption falter, and what data and privacy concerns will arise with increased employee monitoring. In my opinion, these are issues that every company should be closely tracking.

While the labor shortages occurring as a result of demographic shifts like baby boomer retirement and smaller generational cohorts like X and Z were anticipated, organizational attitudes toward post-pandemic employee retention are not. Many companies are currently issuing decrees about exactly when people should return to the office and how and when they should work. After a successful 18-month trial of much greater flexibility, this is not going to fly with top (and increasingly rare) talent, and I fear a “great resignation” is about to take place.

Finally, I’m perplexed that more leaders aren’t acknowledging that they were caught completely off guard by the pandemic and are now engaging in strategic foresight to be adequately prepared for what’s certain to be future disruptions.

While we can’t predict the future, we have a responsibility to look around corners as best we can and plan for a variety of potential scenarios. I look forward to continuing to be part of this process!

Today’s post comes to us from Workforce Institute board member Dr. Martin Armstrong, CPP, DBA and vice president of payroll and shared services for Charter Communications.

Slowly but surely, the economy and the workforce are returning.  As of June 14th, the CDC COVID Data Tracker reports that 64.5% of adults have received at least one vaccination, and these vaccinations represent over 310 million vaccine doses that have been administered. The country has made great strides to return to normalcy, and this is evidenced by nearly 155M people being fully vaccinated.

The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) of 2021 extended federal unemployment benefits through September 6, 2021 to workers who became unemployed through no fault of their own. The ARPA also provides federal unemployment insurance to freelancers, self-employed individuals, and other workers who are ordinarily ineligible for unemployment benefits.   

Thanks to the ARPA, states that participate in these federal unemployment benefit programs are able to add federal unemployment benefits to the state unemployment benefits that are paid to eligible individuals who have applied for unemployment benefits. This combination of federal and state unemployment benefit payments are how many unemployed Americans have been able to make ends meet during this pandemic.

Well, this financial safety net is about to dramatically change for unemployed Americans receiving unemployment benefits in 25 states. 

As of June 14th, 25 states are opting out early (prior to the September 6th end date) from participating in these federal programs. Without the additional unemployment benefits, the states are accelerating the need for impacted individuals to return to the workplace sooner rather than later, ready or not.

In anticipation of this workforce return, organizations such as LinkedIn have been surveying the U.S. workforce to determine what workers deem most important post-COVID. According to LinkedIn’s Workforce Confidence Index, “50% of respondents say that flexibility of hours or location is an important priority, followed by work-life balance (45%), health coverage (41%), pay (36%), and workforce culture (36%).”

It’s helpful to hear what employees are thinking about (The Workforce Institute also recently released voice of the employee data). It’s also incredibly important that organizations pay attention to being ready to ensure that the return of the workforce translates into good employee experience.

To this end, here are 3 Return to Work Expectations for Frontline Leaders to Manage:

1. New Normal Accommodations

Employees are expecting leaders to be flexible with their new normal. For one reason or another, there will be employees who may have health conditions that prevent them from getting the COVID-19 vaccination.  

Others, due to COVID-related circumstances, have become permanent care givers to elderly parents, or home educators to their school-aged children. Nationwide staffing shortages have affected childcare facilities to the extent that finding adequate childcare with capacity has been challenging. These shortages aren’t just relative to daycare facilities; they extend to other service industries. My Workforce Institute colleague Bob Clements recently authored a very insightful post called “3 Ways to Fix Your Labor Shortage”.

While these new normal accommodations may not be permanent, no one can predict how long these circumstances may need to be managed. As such, frontline leaders should be provided resources and a defined process that will help address these new normal accommodations on a case-by-case basis. 

2. Communicate a Consistent Message

Frontline leaders should not pretend to have all of the answers. When employees return to the workplace, frontline leaders will be confronted with more questions than they will have answers for.  Questions like: “Why can’t we just continue to work from home?”; “Can you tell me who is vaccinated and who isn’t?”; and “Why can’t I simply work part-time?”. There is no “Easy Button” to push when an employee is worried about their dog suffering from anxiety when they have to leave him alone for the first time in 18 months. 

Frontline leaders should consult with HR Business Partners to develop consistent messaging for company responses that can be delivered by leadership in a caring and responsible manner. I’d also recommend that leaders follow 3 simple rules of communication: 1) share as much consistent information as you can, 2) communicate as quickly as you can, and 3) always be transparent – even if the response isn’t popular.

3. Manage Organizational Change

Peter Senge, an MIT-based author, researcher, and educator is known for his findings that suggest “people don’t resist change; they resist being changed.” Change is defined as intended and unintended consequences that have the potential to disrupt the life of an organization. Perhaps this explains why, despite all of the academic research, white papers written, and experienced change leaders, many change initiatives fail. If change was easy, everyone would do it! 

Readying the organization to welcome back returning employees from a historical pandemic is bound to have its share of challenges and triumphs. Because change is achieved at the individual employee level, it is the responsibility of frontline leadership to drive change through actions that promote positive change outcomes. These actions include helping employees understand and adopt new changes in the workplace, supporting employees through unique accommodations, and being vigilant about exhibiting a positive attitude towards change. 

From a workplace perspective, picking up where we left off before COVID is unrealistic. Frontline leaders need to be responsive, learn how to pivot, and adequately prepare themselves to Return to Work.  

The good news is that lessons will be learned, and through the collaborative efforts of all stakeholders, frontline leaders will be poised to enthusiastically greet returning employees by saying: Welcome Back!   

Join Chas and Julie as they discuss two topics you've been hearing (and probably thinking) a lot about: remote work and returning to the office.

A few of the issues they'll delve into:

Today's post comes to us from Workforce Institute board member Mark Wales.

As we predicted earlier this year, we are starting to see the first significant increases in labor-related legal actions related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The National Law Review in May 2021 cites pandemic-related class actions as the number 1 trend for 2021. This is based on what is being tracked and seen so far by a variety of legal analysts.

JDSPURA has published the below map of labor-related pandemic legal cases for the U.S. and listed the top 5 key drivers as being:

  1. Alleged failure to provide a safe working environment
  2. Discrimination (especially disability and age)
  3. Leave claims (including both FMLA and the varying state laws)
  4. Retaliation or whistleblower claims (as related to workplace safety or leave)
  5. Wage and hour (related to the pandemic)

In 2020, over 38% of the cases were classified as relating to termination, which is not unexpected, given the nature of the unprecedented need to close business operations down temporarily, and the processes companies took to decide who and what jobs they retained.

JDSUPRA concludes that thus far, few of the cases are maturing into class certification stage, but courts have reached varying conclusions, so this is an aspect to watch in 2021.

Analysis by Seyfarth suggests that this will evolve and develop, especially as more companies return to the office.

The American Bar Association (ABA) warns of cases surrounding misclassification of employees, such as the complaints against Uber and Lyft. The ABA also highlights issues arising from bringing employees back to company locations and the complexity of managing risk when it comes to who is sick and company policies around managing that risk as it relates to other employees and the public.

The latest Jackson Lewis Covid-19 Employment Litwatch analysis shows the growing cumulative volume of complaints:

The National Law Review advises employers to carefully monitor and prepare for issues arising from:

  1. Wage and hour complaints (especially off the clock working)
  2. Expenses related to home working
  3. Wage and hour related to nonexempt workers waiting (such as delays will be being scanned for temperatures)
  4. Mandated vaccinations
  5. Discrimination over who returns to work

Many organizations have yet to finalize rules or begin bringing all workers back to the office and this return to work is likely to increase the complexity and volume of cases. There will be a whole new level of complexity around accommodations and equity on an ongoing basis.

How will company policies evolve and will companies codify policies that adjust for individual state, county or municipality guidelines and laws around ”œopening up” after the pandemic?

As with so much having to do with the pandemic, there is much uncertainty as to what the new normal looks like for businesses. Company policies around labor law, health and safety, and equity will be huge minefields for quite some time.

What Can Organizations Do?

Organization leadership in Workforce Management, HR, Operations, and Legal should set up regular joint sessions to review external trends, internal developments, and develop concrete and actionable plans to prepare and deal with emerging pandemic-related labor issues. This will minimize the unexpected and ease required responses or actions.

Companies must consider the issues of health, safety and equity as seriously as other issues of labor law compliance.

Today's post comes to us from the executive director of The Workforce Institute, Dr. Chris Mullen, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, SPHR.

We've got some interesting new research that finds that although many manufacturers are emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic on solid footing – with more than half achieving year-over-year growth (54%) – a mounting skilled-labor shortage threatens to delay the sector's full recovery. 

Featuring year-over-year comparisons to a similar study completed by The Workforce Institute before the pandemic took hold, the 2021 research explores linkages between understaffing, overtime, employee burnout, absence, and turnover, as well as strategies bolstered by people-centric technology and used by manufacturers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to overcome these barriers to business success.

A few key findings:

The Manufacturing Talent Gap Grows Wider

Understaffing is a Significant Problem 

Investing in the Workforce to Close the Talent Gap

Workforce Institute board member John Frehse weighed in on the findings, noting, ”œAs shockwaves continue to reverberate through the supply chain, employees are being asked to be more agile than ever. As exhausted as we all are right now, there is no better time to assess what has happened, develop the right labor strategies to protect the emotional well-being of employees, and make our companies more resilient for the next big disruption. It is not a question of if it will happen again, but when.”

Check out John's recent post on Panic in the Supply Chain.

You can also read the full report here: The Resilience of Manufacturing: Strengthening People Operations and Bridging the Talent Gap Amid Crisis.

Today's post comes to us from Workforce Institute board member, Natalie Bickford. 

As the world is preparing for life post pandemic, organizations are preparing for the return to the workplace. While some are advocating for a wholesale return to five days in the office, and others are moving to fully remote flexibility, the majority are aiming for some form of hybrid working model. On average, companies are outlining policies requiring employees to be in their normal place of work two to three days per week, with the remainder of the time at a location of the employee's choice.

Eighteen months ago, we would have been heralding this as a major breakthrough in moving to an agile working environment, with a particular advantage being seen through the diversity lens of benefiting (in particular) women with caring responsibilities. And indeed, there is a lot to be said for allowing knowledge workers to have more control over where they spend their time. 

What we also knew, however, and what has arguably become even more visible during the Covid-19 crisis, is that women take on the significant majority of family and household responsibilities. While there has been much progress in the equality of women in the workplace, this is not necessarily the case at home. I personally saw this in 2020, where a disproportionate number of women in my previous workplace opted to be furloughed because of the pressures of home schooling, whereas their male colleagues continued to work full time, albeit remotely. 

As employees prepare to return, there is arguably a significant risk that men and women's attendance at the physical workplace will be unbalanced, with many more women choosing to work remotely than their male counterparts.  Why should we care about that? Hasn't lack of flexible work arrangements for women at certain points of their careers been seen as the greatest barrier to female progression? 

My supposition is that by working more remotely than men, women will fall behind on promotion opportunities, and if anything, the pay gap will start to widen further. While it is certain that some attitudes towards physical presence will have started to evolve as a result of the last 18 months, even Covid-19 will not have been able to over-turn some 70 years of embedded work culture. 

Being physically present, observing long hours, working the water cooler politics, and being available for a quick coffee or a drink after work, have long been the underpinnings of career progression. Being there gets you noticed, and however diligent your output is from home, dependability and conscientiousness allow you to keep your job, rather than necessarily creating opportunities for promotion. 

So what can we do to reduce the potential risk around growing gender inequality in the workplace? The first place to look is at home. Dual career families should take this opportunity to reset the division of labor. Arguably for the first time, men and women will have the same opportunity to work flexibly, and now would be a good moment to divvy up caring and home responsibilities in a more balanced way. 

Business leaders and managers also have a key role to play. Company policy is one thing, but company culture is quite another. If male and female leaders role-model modern agile working practices, then managers and team leaders will follow suit. If they work away from the office for a couple of days per week, and speak of the positive benefits, then it will become an accepted norm, thus encouraging more male employees to take the same opportunity. 

If we can get this new work agility right, and at the same time rebalance the caring responsibilities for the family, then we might just be able to super-charge our progress in workplace gender equality. If we get it wrong, we might just set ourselves back another 20 years. 

Today's post comes to us from Workforce Institute board member and HR BartenderSharlyn Lauby. 

In a recent article on Bloomberg, several banks are indicating that it's time for their employees to think about returning to work. While your organization might not be a Wall Street financial institution, the conversations about when it is okay to start inviting employees back to the office are probably happening in your boardrooms as well.

The decision to allow employees to continue to work remotely, come back to the office, or work in some sort of hybrid environment is very unique to each organization. It could be driven by a variety of factors including the operation, industry, number of employees, etc. But at some point, organizations will want to start chatting with employees about spending time in the office. When that time comes, the organization needs to have a plan.

Not just a logistics plan for how to safely bring people into the office, but a plan to set employees up for success. Both are important.

My guess is that organizations are working on the logistics plan right now. It will include decisions on how many employees can be in the building at the same time and how furniture should be spaced around the office. The plan will also include information on proper cleaning, wearing masks, and distancing requirements.

What organizations might not be talking about is the plan for helping employees feel comfortable in their return to the workplace. Some employees haven't seen their workplace in a year. This will almost be like starting a new job. In fact, maybe the answer to this situation is to treat an employee's return to the office almost like they are a new employee. The organization could welcome employees back with a mini onboarding program.

Traditional onboarding programs do two things: 1) they help individuals socialize into their new surroundings and 2) they give them the tools to be productive. Some of the activities and topics that might be included in a return to the office mini onboarding program are:

SOCIALIZATION: While employees have probably seen each other via video calls, it's not the same as being in the same room. Managers should try to have an in-person one-on-one with each employee to welcome them back and answer any questions. Create opportunities for employees to reconnect with their coworkers. And don't require that all the conversations be about work. As employees get more comfortable, the discussions will become work related.

PRODUCTIVITY: Returning to the office doesn't necessarily mean a return to pre-pandemic policies, procedures, rules, and guidelines. The organization might have discovered a new and better way of doing something. This is a perfect time to convey and confirm how work will get done. Don't make the assumption that employees know this information. Over the past year, employees have gotten used to working remotely.

This type of return-to-work onboarding session doesn't have to be lengthy. Its purpose isn't to cover everything because these employees already know the organization and the job. This program is focused on giving employees the opportunity to reacquaint themselves with the new work environment, the changes in their responsibilities, and the people they will be working with.

Organizations are very focused on economic recovery right now. And they should be. It's one of the reasons they're talking about when to invite employees back to the workplace. The sooner everyone is able to safely and comfortably work together, the sooner things will resume to some level of normalcy. Which hopefully translates into high performance and economic recovery.

But, if organizations don't take the time to set employees up for success, those efforts might not take off as quickly as organizations would like. A return-to-work onboarding session could be an effective and efficient step toward the high performance that organizations are looking for.

Today's post comes to us from our brand new board member Kate Bischoff, founder of tHRive Law & Consulting.

There is a life motto I have always believed in: Just because you can do things does not mean you should do things. For example: Just because you can eat an entire jumbo bag of Gummi Bears in one sitting doesn't necessarily mean you should do that.

The same thing is true for employers ”“ they can do things, but should they? For example, requiring folks to be back in the office post-pandemic is one of those things you can do, but is it something you should do?

In 2020, managers were forced to quickly learn how to manage differently, moving from a traditional command-and-control model where you knew someone was working if they were at their desk, to a more trust-based, production-based model (e.g. ”œI'm going to trust you to get the work done even though I can't see you”). For some, this transition was harder than others, and with vaccinations helping control the pandemic, these managers may be itching to get everyone back in their seats.

So, can an employer require employees come back to the office? The simple answer is: Yes. The law allows employers to demand that folks return to the office with limited exceptions. 

One exception is if an employee has a medical condition that places them at greater risk of COVID-19. In this case, an employer must reasonably accommodate them, possibly even if the employee is vaccinated. Likewise, if an employee cannot get vaccinated due to the employee's religion, the employee may request to continue to work from home until it is safe for them to return post-pandemic. An employer will go through the traditional interactive process to make these accommodations. (Note, if employees have been working from home for the past year, continuing to work from home is going to be a reasonable accommodation ”“ it's going to be nearly impossible to prove an undue burden.)

So, employers can require folks to come back to the office, but should they?

The urgency to get back to work seems to be driven by the idea that ”œbutts in seats” will be a sign we are back to ”œnormal.” But ”œnormal” is not what we're going to be going back to. Every study out there shows a lot of employees ”“ even healthy ones ”“ are hesitant to return to work full-time, instead opting to stay at home more often with increased flexibility. Some fear returning to work while the pandemic is still raging. Others have enjoyed their yoga pants, pet cuddle breaks, and being available to handle personal matters (including kid pick-ups) during the day while still being productive team members. These employees may even start looking for a new job if they are forced back to work full time.

This poses a new conundrum for employers ”“ if we require people to come back, will they leave us?

We know that a booming economy is both great and risky for employers. Sales are up, but employees may be looking for greener pastures. If employers are going to keep employees, they'll need to create a workplace where teams can determine for themselves what in-office schedule works best for them and their team.

We have lived through a year of great uncertainty. As the pandemic starts to come to an end (fingers crossed), employers should consider the needs and wants of employees as we all struggle to put on regular pants. Or, put another way, just because employers can require folks to be back in the office, doesn't mean they should.

Today's post comes to us from Workforce Institute board member and HR Bartender Sharlyn Lauby. 

As we're hearing more about vaccines, it's only natural to talk about people gathering together. Of course, that leads to a conversation about employees coming back to the office or similar workplace.

It reminded me of an article published on Business Insider a couple of months ago about how ”œZillow is adopting a hybrid model of work, but its CEO says it's trying to prevent one major downside: a two-class system where those who come into the office are viewed as better employees. It's true that hybrid workplaces could perpetuate inequities. However, organizations have the ability to create hybrid workplaces that don't. It will take a lot of hard work and resources to do it successfully.

Many organizations entered the pandemic with a small number of remote workers. The reasons those workers were remote varied greatly. For some, it could be related to parental or caregiving responsibilities. Or maybe it was a high-performing employee who relocated, and the company didn't want to lose them. Possibly both. It would be interesting to know how many employees (prior to the pandemic) were told that working remotely would severely limit their career opportunities. My guess is there weren't that many ”“ if any at all.

In many cases, remote employees were told that they could work away from the office as long as their productivity didn't suffer, and they would be available to come into the office as needed. While there was a bit of a learning curve, managers were able to manage one or two remote employees without too much difficulty.

The challenge with the hybrid model is that it means large-scale change. It's a new way of thinking about the workplace. There are three areas that organizations need to address:

Creating a hybrid workplace is a big job. Think of it as creating an employee experience strategy. Or changing company culture. But it can be done. And it can be done well. The organizations that make the commitment to creating equitable hybrid workplaces will be the ones that are able to attract, engage, and retain the best talent. Because those organizations will have figured out how to maintain company culture with a hybrid workplace.

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