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Working With COVID: 3 Steps to Limit Presenteeism



COVID-19 virus molecule

Right now, many people are holding their breath in hopes that their company will extend work-from-home policy. While Pfizer has a promising COVID-19 vaccine underway, the fact remains; nearly 250 thousand Americans have died a premature death.

Somewhat more promising, Alex Azar, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary said they will have enough doses to immunize the U.S.’ “most vulnerable by end of 2020,” and by Summer 2021 they expect to have over a million vaccine doses available.

This news is like a breath of fresh air until the realization that: There are only 30-some days until 2021 to vaccinate the most vulnerable. And one or two million vaccines sounds great until you realize the U.S. has over 330 million citizens.

We must accept the hard truth. We will work (and live) next to this deadly virus into the foreseeable future. Bill Gates suggested that COVID-19 will likely spread well into 2022.

Businesses who care about corporate stewardship must be prepared to adapt, manage, grow, and inspire in a virtual climate of despair and dispirit.

How to Control Your Work Environment

It’s easy to control our environment at home. And, in grocery stores we can dodge those who aren’t wearing masks. But how can we control our environment at work?

The answer to this question comes from a new startup called Floss Bar, a leader in pop-up dental services who’s now blazing the trails with onsite Mobile COVID-19 TESTING services. When the company was founded by Eva Sadej in 2017, she set out to make a difference. And that she did and is still doing. When the pandemic hit the States, her team created a new medical wing called Med Bar dedicated to containing the virus and thus protecting employers and employees.

Med Bar understands the concerns, fears and anxieties that employees experience as they walk across the parking lot to work each day. These are the same worries that nurses, assembly line workers, and grocery store cashiers feel as they mask up, arm themselves with sanitizer, and hide behind plexiglass shields — hoping this won’t be the day they contract the virus and spread it to loved ones.

Presenteeism & Preoccupied Brains

These weighty thoughts don’t stop at the workplace entrance. Fears that evoke fight-or-flight responses cannot be checked at the door. To that end, bodies may sit behind desks. But, brains may not be present. This kind of stress leads to impaired cognitive function. That not only makes it difficult to focus, it also “impairs the body’s immune system, exacerbates any already existing illnesses, and contributes to loss of sociability and the avoidance of interactions with others.” The inability to fully function in the workplace is known as presenteeism. It is one of the top performance and productivity killers. Even though organizations have largely ignored it in the past, presenteeism is right up there with disengagement, and far more prevalent and costly than absenteeism.

Building Employee Confidence

Med Bar partners with doctors and clinicians across the U.S., providing modular healthcare teams that deliver COVID-19 testing and sanitizing services. Beyond pop-up and on-demand services, they provide an app that features staggered COVID-19 testing so employees can schedule within their morning work window. The app also maintains a database for test results, and contact tracing and trending. Med Bar will also develop new COVID protocols and custom policy — helping companies decrease employee stress, presenteeism and liability. Top organizations know that it is nearly impossible to engage employees who are under stress or depressed. Even before the pandemic, presenteeism killed profits, costing U.S. companies billions.

When looking at the big picture, presenteeism is the least of our worries. An interview with Keith Bogen, senior HR business partner at Med Bar, put things into perspective: “We are not just helping people—we are saving lives.”

Bogen, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, and Six Sigma Green Belt, said that presenteeism isn’t simply connected to medical issues. “People are carrying deep worries and concerns that involve eldercare, absence of childcare amidst school closings, homeowner and financial issues, and a host of other issues that aren’t necessarily medical or new, but are exacerbated by COVID.” Adding to this, some workers have family members who have fallen ill to cancer or other diseases that weaken the immune system, which can cause an intense sense of danger, nervousness, and panic among employees, and in turn can lead to lack of productivity and/or costly mistakes.

COVID-19: A Workplace Safety Issue

Today, corporate responsibility is critical. Employers are responsible for the safety of their employees, stakeholders, and the larger community. Lest we forget, the thousands of fatalities that occurred leading up to the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act. Workplace mortality statistics will need to factor in COVID return-to-work plan and policy next to its standard workplace mortality rates, which typically center on access to healthcare and quality of healthcare. That is, the workplace itself serves as a breeding ground for COVID-19. It appears employees are in a quandary: They cannot line their pockets with posies and a paycheck cannot protect their families from the pandemic.

Why Are Companies Pushing for Employees to Return?

Short answer: Old school, authoritarian micromanagers were taught to lead with control. Therefore, they not only sense a loss of control when employees are out of their sight, they also don’t believe their employees can perform without them. But, data across the nation is telling a very different story — a story with a happy ending!

After surveying nearly 800 employers with full-time teleworkers; Mercer, a top HR consulting firm, discovered that 70 percent of employers said their productivity was the same, while 30 percent said productivity was higher than it was before the pandemic. Bogen sees the same thing, “Productivity has actually increased since we have been at home. Plus, there are other advantages he said, “The cost savings in fuel is tremendous. And the time saved in commute is typically added onto the work day, so the employer is essentially getting more for their money.”

Should Employees Return to Work — If the Work Can Be Accomplished at Home?

“Personally I don’t think they should,” Bogen said. “Many companies are bringing people back that they don’t necessarily need. I would urge each company to focus on what they are trying to accomplish. What is the goal of the company and what is the goal of each employee. If they are getting ‘XYZ’ done, why risk it? Unfortunately, it’s not possible for those in the medical, manufacturing, and distribution fields, but non-essential workers need not return now or maybe ever.” Bogen’s key takeaway, “Organizations need to look at the productivity — not at the presence in the office.”

Working From Home: It’s Not Our Future — It’s Our Now!

Working from home is the new norm. Skepticism about employees working from home points to managements lack of trust in their employees — a clear indication of a high-handed company culture. In the very near future, companies may not require as many managers, apps can track and trend performance—often better than humans. Either way, this should grant some free time to the busy micromanager. Now managers can lead (which means to serve others) and can focus on the wants, goals, and needs of the employee to better align them with the company’s objectives.

Now coined “The fourth industrial revolution,” by Twitter HR chief, Jennifer Christie, COVID-19 has forced us to change the way we work. Like Twitter, many companies have noticed an improvement in productivity and as a result they are sending their employees home indefinitely. Twitter executives say, a distributed workforce gives employees more freedom and autonomy. Importantly, it provides the ability to hire from a more diverse talent pool.

Doing the Right Thing: Taking All Precautions

A loss in profits to presenteeism is one thing, but when it comes to jeopardizing employee health or putting them at risk of death — it’s about doing the right thing. Even though (as of recent) over 140,000 new COVID-19 cases are reported each day, Bogen has noticed that some of the more antediluvian industries in the financial sector are requiring their employees to return to the office. In our high-tech life of cloud based systems, smart phones and powerful Apps, many question why. What function of their job cannot be accomplished remotely? Businesses need to step-it-up and remember that (good or bad) they set the example. Asking hoards of employees to return to work is no different than TikTokers throwing superspreader events in the Hollywood Hills.

As head of The HR Whine & Dine Group, Bogen speaks with hundreds of HR professionals each week. “Many of those who have been required to return to work are severely agitated,” he said. “They know they were productive at home and now they feel they are being forced into the office to do the very same thing—only now they must fight off a deadly disease.” A pressure no one should have to bear.

“Every week the stories get worse. I hear about companies who are not taking enough steps to protect their employees or are simply not willing to do anything, with the exception of asking employees to bring in their own masks. Yet others are not taking any precautions, but are insisting their employees return to work.” There are some companies who get it, and they are doing all the right things. But in the end, as Bogen put it, “the white-collar workforce is worried sick because no matter what accommodations are made, they see the return to work as a gamble with their lives.”

Demands to Return-to-Work

If companies insist on reopening (and some do) they must invest in preventative measures to protect their employees. Being known as a “superspreader” not only weighs on the Board’s conscious, but it wreaks of risk, liability, and ethical/moral lapse in judgement.

Reputation is everything, yet “many companies just aren’t doing much of anything,” Bogen said, “They pick and choose preventative measures. Some are hiring a cleaning crew, but most are not testing or doing routine temp checks, and have no sustainable way to track testing and lab results.” When asked what employers should really be expected to do to protect employees, Bogen said, “From a HR practitioner perspective that seeks to limit the liability of their organization, companies will want to do more than less. And you will lessen your liability if you have an impartial person to head this endeavor.”

In addition, Bogen said, “organizations will pay dearly if they don’t get this one right. There are a lot of angry employees who will return to work because they have no choice. And they will do–what they need to do–to keep their job. Mark my words, when the pandemic is over, they will hold their company in contempt for not protecting them and their families, and will ultimately walk out the door.”

Steps Organizations Can take to Protect Employees

Working for Med Bar, the one-and-only mobile COVID-Crisis testing system, Bogen has a wealth of knowledge on the subject of protection. “While testing doesn’t prevent COVID, you can take steps to protect people,” Bogen asserts. Med Bar, uses a combination of finger-prick and naso-pharyngeal swab samples to determine active and past infection—both in compliance with FDA guidelines. “Since we have clinicians and partners in the field, we have access to rapid antigen testing and can typically deliver results within 1-3 days.” That a good thing, especially in a world were lab results can take up to three weeks or more.

Step 1. COVID-19 Antigen Testing

Procuring an “impartial infectious control team not only increases accountability and accuracy,” said Bogen, “it lessens liability … particularly in terms of HIPPA compliance.” When it comes to testing, Bogen suggests that companies set up temperature stations, mandate employee swab testing once a week (or every other week), use an app to record results, schedule employee tests, require employees to inform as to recent exposure to COVID-19, and use a certified screener to test before employees set foot in the building. “The more there is perceived effort to mitigate the danger,” Bogen said, “the more confidence people will have in the workplace.” In the wake of COVID-19, it’s also vital that employers not only have a defined COVID-19 plan, but also make every effort to keep employees in the loop about all protocols and preventative measures, as well as keep employees educated about (new or extended) medical leave policy, and encourage the use of employee assistance programs to decrease anxiety/depression.

  • Procure impartial infectious control team or clinician
  • Mandate COVID-19 testing and exposure feedback once per week
  • Use an app to schedule, record, trace, and track results
  • Revise/establish flexible work from home policy and stagger work hours/shifts
  • Provide anonymous way for employees to report a person who exhibits symptoms of COVID-19
  • Adopt a plan of action for approach, isolation, contact tracing, and area disinfection in the event a worker is suspected of having the virus. (Start piloting).

Step 2. Redesign Performance Review System

The tectonic shift to a considerably larger remote workforce requires an equal tectonic shift in policy. Counted on to root out all areas of bias, this means HR must amend performance appraisals so that employees who decide to work from home are not inadvertently evaluated on obsolete criteria. This means that managers should have a revised set of performance questions that are reflective of remote employees. In addition, organizations should make every effort to ensure their virtual workers are managed by virtual managers. Research by Paul M. Muchinsky, expert in industrial/organizational psychology, shows that virtual employees are more likely to feel more trusted, satisfied, and productive, when they have a virtual manager, and less likely to feel that their virtual status would have a negative impact on their careers.

  • Amend annual performance review templates
  • Redefine company’s core competencies / reflect telework and pandemic-related changes
  • Ensure virtual employees and teams are managed by virtual managers
  • Encourage virtual managers to mentor traditional managers–who are new to managing remote employees.

Step 3. Create Safe Spaces

CDC research shows that wearing a mask (properly) and maintaining a distance of 6-feet or more from others provides the best protection against COVID-19. These measures have proven to work wonders when practiced correctly, but they are iffy in the workplace. If an organization insists on having employees on-site — here’s what they can do to build employee confidence and mitigate the spread of the virus. Bogen recommends that companies, “adopt one-way corridors or walking zones. Get rid of common, snack, and food areas, and prohibit food in the refrigerator to minimize gatherings and touch points. Consider using things that operate by motion rather than touch. Invest in dividers. And if you don’t have your own established work space, get disinfecting services to ensure the next person doesn’t pick up germs.”

  • Adopt one-way walk zones
  • Prohibit use of convenience common areas (no gatherings in offices or conference rooms)
  • Purchase hands-free automatic hand-sanitizer dispensers/stations
  • Implement hands-free door access
  • Hire professional services that use (COVID-Killing) disinfectants
  • Reposition workstations with plexiglass partitions (See
    OSHA for details)
  • Invest in space and desk divider panels and/or screens.

In the end, it is cheaper and safer for companies to continue a work-from-home policy. But, if your company must open its doors, consider a consult with Med Bar and/or implement the above recommendations. Doing so will help you build employee confidence, reduce presenteeism, and help to create a hale and hearty culture.

Let me know: What do you think companies should do to protect employees from COVID-19?

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