Employee Communications Guidance: Week of 5/4

Even with shelter-in-place policies lightening in some areas, companies and their workforces are under intensifying pressure. As government and business leaders grapple with how and when to reopen, conversation is heating up around employee rights and how workers might respond if demands aren’t met. 

Employee demands escalate to legal action. Following ongoing employee “sickouts” and continued efforts to finetune safety policies for frontline team members – social distancing, personal protective equipment, temperature checks at the door and more – employee actions escalated to a new level last week: lawsuits. The first domino fell Friday, when Smithfield Foods was sued over working conditions in its pork-processing plants. While government and unions continue to go back-and-forth on what’s next for facilities like these, lawyers are advising business leaders to think carefully about worker safety. 

Employees’ right to work (from home). With conversations focused on the future of work, organizations are rethinking what work will look like after the curve flattens – and just how much of a “return” to work is feasible for those in office settings. The reality is, COVID-19 may create the extensive work-from-home environment many pushed for years prior to the outbreak. Talks of that shift are underway in Germany, where the Labor Minister plans to present legislation around the “right to home,” either part- or full-time, even after the coronavirus crisis is over. 

Revising corporate initiatives for 2020. As the COVID-19 crisis took top priority for businesses, it meant other big-bet initiatives shifted to the back burner. But for how long? And are these plans still relevant when engaging with a post-coronavirus market? With states headed toward gradual reopening, corporations are moving quickly to reassess rest-of-year plans that include a changed economy and workforce. Some continue sitting tight; others are “moving forward no matter what.” Rite Aid, for example, planned a massive business overhaul months before the outbreak and it is pushing forward. The CEO explained juggling the different workstreams: one focused on fueling the increasing demands due to the pandemic, another focused on keeping previous priorities moving. This exercise to reevaluate the path forward presents an opportunity for companies to refer back to their core values and build itself as a trusted employer and brand.

Lack of succession planning poses a risk. Our March 23 update highlighted the need to prioritize executive succession planning. Not only is this business-critical under normal circumstances where top-level leaders unexpected transition out, the virus could pull leaders away from work at any moment. We’re now seeing data showing nearly 40% of boards did not have risk mitigation plans in place prior to the crisis. As the global infection count continues to rise and talks of a second wave continue, building these plans now will help organizations prepare for current and future crises.

Reconfiguring office space. As states and certain countries are looking to jumpstart the “new normal,” conversations continue around physical changes required to workplaces. Architecture and commercial real estate firms are hypothesizing about everything from leasing agreements to desk spacing to cleaning policies – and everything in between. But that’s just one piece of the puzzle, as organizations must also take into consideration daily commutes, childcare availability and employee anxiety about a truly safe return. Any sort of seamless return will require partnership from local governments, businesses and many others.

*If you have questions or are seeking counsel, please reach out to Carla Keppler at ckeppler@golin.com.