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Welcome Back! Return to Work Expectations for the Frontline Leader to Manage

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!   

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