ADAPTing to Work Post-Quarantine

May 18, 2020
Joy Teng-Calleja, RM Zantua, and Queenie Isidro
Almost all of us were caught unprepared to tackle the impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic. As this health emergency developed into an economic and humanitarian crisis, governments and organizations across the globe look for ways to save both lives and livelihood in these uncertain times.
Most organizations have adapted strategies to continue operations at varying scales during lockdown. However, even after the quarantine is lifted, we know that it will take a while before a vaccine is found, and that a second or even third wave of coronavirus outbreak remains a possibility. Given this, it is necessary that we adjust to the new normal and find new ways of working. In doing so, we need to remain cautious and to continuously ensure the safety of everyone as we transition to doing work post-quarantine.

Ateneo CORD conducted an online survey to gather collective insights on how organizations can more effectively ensure the safety and well-being of workers after the government lifts the quarantine. One hundred and sixty Filipino workers from various industries and sectors (business process outsourcing, academe, government, services/utility, retail and manufacturing) responded to the survey administered from April 14 to 20, 2020. The summary of our findings which describe how we can help employees more effectively ADAPT to work post-quarantine are presented below:

Adjust work arrangements
Majority of the respondents echoed the need to ensure the safety of employees and other stakeholders through physical distancing. Work from home (WFH) arrangements can be continued especially for teams that were observed to be effective in doing so during lockdown. Aside from WFH, companies may explore implementing flexible work hours, partial reporting, or having a skeletal workforce. These will lessen people on-site and minimize exposure of employees to the disease especially during commute. There is also a need to physically restructure the workplace to ensure safety. Examples of how this can be done include redesigning the floor space, rearranging office set-up, or putting protective barriers both in the office and in the production lines as well as between clients and employees in the frontline.
Develop and communicate sustainability strategies
Some respondents shared that their organizations have a business continuity or a risk mitigation plan. Whether there is a plan in place or still in the process of crafting one, it may be important to gather lessons and insights that we have so far from the COVID-19 experience. These can be used to update, or create sustainability plans and improve on how these translate to actual systems, processes and procedures. The review may include examining whether the organization was able to effectively build savings/reserve resources for crisis situations and if this is enough to ensure employment protection. It may also look into new strategies to generate income and minimize costs especially with the changes in work arrangements and customer demands. Sustainability plans need to include the human side of organizational life- that is, caring for the needs of employees as well as giving attention to diverse and vulnerable groups within the organization.
Although some employees expressed concern about the capacity of their organization to continue with the business post-quarantine, a few also shared that they trust that their leaders know what they are doing. They also expressed hope that leaders will exhaust all possible means to avoid laying-off employees and that they will communicate early how work will look like post-quarantine, what precautionary measures are being done to ensure safety, and how the organization may provide mental health support.
Activate safety protocols
In connection with having adjusted plans and work arrangements, respondents expressed that they are expecting to have new work norms. According to them, these work norms need to be outlined as protocols on entry, exit, and being at work. Some suggestions include ensuring thermal scanning at each entry point to the office/all work areas, wearing face masks, and following acceptable sanitation practices. Aside from periodic sanitation of all areas in the office, disinfecting protocols are also needed for employees working in shifts with shared seating arrangements. This of course assumes that the company will make the equipment and protective materials /disinfectants available to everyone in the workplace (both employees and guests alike). Clear policies on minimizing face to face meetings also need to be articulated until people are vaccinated or once herd immunity is achieved. Protocols on how the organization will respond to future guidelines of the national and local government can be put in place so employees are aware of how they will react or take action. Learnings from how the organization deals with disasters can be jump-off point to these protocols. Since the number of COVID-19 cases varies across different areas in the country, some respondents also recommended constant coordination with the local government unit where their office is located.
Protect the well-being of employees
Participants gave numerous suggestions on how organizations can help protect their overall well-being. Aside from ensuring safety within the office, there were recommendations to extend protection during commute by providing company-sponsored transportation or helping organize carpooling arrangements. Financial support will likewise help alleviate the economic challenges caused by the pandemic to the employees and their families. This can be done by helping ensure continued provision of salaries and benefits. For example, some companies who are also having financial difficulties asked their employees to use their vacation leave and sick leave benefits while others implemented a partial distribution of 13th month pay. Companies who have daily wage earners or those needing to let go of some workers helped facilitate their access to government support. Employees also expressed hope that their organizations will expand their health insurance coverage to include treatment of COVID-19.
The survey respondents also mentioned the provision of Psychological First Aid to help workers process experiences during the lockdown and the challenges of adjusting to work post-quarantine. They expressed the need for mental health support especially for those experiencing continued anxiety and depression (e.g. access to in-house or online counseling and/or referral to professionals for more severe psychological challenges). Suggestions for companies to have mechanisms to conduct mental health checks and to initiate activities to bring back solidarity as well as lift the spirits of people were also shared by some of the participants.
Train and support employees as they adapt to change
Helping employees adjust to the new work norms will entail conducting employee orientations and putting up visual reminders to reinforce knowledge and desired behaviors. In some organizations, the learning and development teams took it upon themselves to conduct sessions on health guidelines, COVID-19 awareness, and protection reminders during the lockdown. Something similar can be done by other organizations to provide context to conversations on the new work norms. Aside from the orientation on protocols, it will be helpful to equip employees with handles on how to adapt to changes in work arrangements and processes. For example, if some functions will be fully or partially virtual/digital, provide them with tools, and support the development of needed knowledge and skills. This can even be started while we are still on quarantine. It is important to set employees up for success and to give consideration to their individual journey as they adapt through change.
The recommendations from the qualitative survey can be points for reflection and action of organization leaders. Using these initial data as a starting point, leaders and managers may reach out to employees and ask for their ideas and suggestions. Bringing employees onboard in navigating through the crisis situation will help ensure relevance of interventions. It will also enhance commitment not just to the new work norms but to initiatives that will strengthen the organizations capacity to win over the challenges brought by the pandemic.
Joy Teng-Calleja is a Director at Ateneo CORD and an Associate Professor at the Department of Psychology, Ateneo de Manila University. She has a doctorate degree in Social-Organizational Psychology.
RM Zantua is Ateneo CORD’s Program Officer for Research and is currently taking up a Master’s Degree in Organization Psychology
Queenie Isidro has a Master’s Degree in Applied Social Psychology and is currently the Associate Director of Ateneo CORD’s Consulting Unit
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