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By: Hannah Esbenshade on October 8th, 2020

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Employer Flexibility and Leave Programs in the Age of COVID-19

Total Rewards | COVID-19

Article originally appeared in NVTC's The Voice of Technology magazine in September 2020.

Ask recruiters for the top question they get from candidates today and the answer will be some variation of: “How is your company handling the COVID-19 pandemic?” There are still many things experts do not know about this virus and most employers are proceeding forward with extreme caution. Schools are introducing new approaches to learning which forces employees and parents into new challenges that were unheard of half a year ago. It’s safe to say our collective sense of normalcy has been shattered and we are facing uncharted territory.

As a human capital consulting and recruiting firm here in the Greater Washington, DC area, we turned to our clients and community network to get a more holistic view of how employers are adjusting their leave programs. Helios HR posted a LinkedIn poll asking the following question: Have you changed your paid leave programs since COVID-19 began? Unsurprisingly, sixty-six percent (66%) of respondents responded with “Yes” or “We are being more flexible”. With all of the abrupt changes to telecommuting and leave brought on by COVID-19, we decided to take a look at leave trends pre-COVID and how employers are currently adapting. This article will provide a glimpse of what our future “normal” might look like.

Pre-COVID Trends
To understand leave trends, Helios HR and NFP partnered and produced a comprehensive paid leave benefits survey for 2019-2020. In this pre-COVID survey, we found that twenty-seven percent (27%) of respondents offered flexible hours at their workplace. Another pre-COVID survey from DC SHRM found that while ninety-one percent (91%) of employers across the DC Metro area allowed telecommuting for full-time employees, the median limit of telecommuting was one (1) day per week. While this data shows us that employers were generally open to part-time telecommuting and flexibility, the actual utilization was less frequent.

COVID Trends
In March 2020, around the time President Trump declared a national emergency in response to COVID-19, flexible hours and telecommuting options received a sudden dramatic increase. The Family First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) passed shortly after and mandated certain employers provide paid sick leave for qualifying reasons related to COVID-19. Employers began to notice a decrease in employees taking paid time off, due largely to the fact that travel had significantly decreased.

More recently, Virginia passed an Emergency Temporary Standard with one of the requirements being employers should ensure sick leave policies are flexible to the extent feasible. California followed shortly after with their COVID-19 Employer Playbook with resources and guidelines on how to reopen and safely operate in the workplace. Employers should stay abreast of any local, state, and federal guidance enacted to address COVID-19 in the workplace.

More than ever before, flexibility is increasing as an essential value. Flexibility around work schedules and working from home usually costs employers very little, if anything, and the value-add acknowledged by employees can be huge. This will continue to be the case as school begins to start up and a large portion of kids will be in virtual classes for the first time ever. It’s important to emphasize that employees will look to company leadership when internalizing the message of workplace flexibility. If employees are told they can work remotely but the entire leadership team is at the office full-time, you run the risk of sending mixed signals and jeopardizing employee stability. Management should practice what they preach and set the example on how to communicate schedule changes and availability.

The Washington Post recently reported, we are living in the greatest public health crisis in over 100 years. With the levels of stress and fatigue our nation is experiencing, we are advising our clients to reiterate the importance of taking time off for self-care. Some of our clients are even taking this a step further and providing additional leave to their employees. We’re seeing employers granting PTO for mental health and rest days or allowing for an extra day off around long holiday weekends. Many have recognized the general decrease in leave usage since the beginning of the pandemic and are increasing leave carryover maximums or granting employees a special one-time leave payout option.

While navigating new flexible and remote options, keep in mind that communication and boundaries will be essential in managing burnout and keeping employees engaged. Keeping calendars up-to-date, including response times or schedules in email signatures, and being vocal about availability with team members are helpful ways to stay on top of communication.

Post-COVID Trends
While much is still unknown about the future of the workplace, chances are high it will be different from our pre-COVID normal. Employers will benefit by taking stock of changes to the workforce and assessing both the difficulties and any positive aspects that have inadvertently come to light.

With the feedback of increased telework being generally positive, employers should consider whether continuing this practice post-COVID is feasible for their business. Doing so would lessen commute times and could allow employers to consider expanding their candidate pools to outside their locality. Since meetings are held virtually more than ever now, employers should set expectations about professional attire, utilizing camera settings during video sessions, and being conscious of meetings times and allowing for breaks throughout the day. Some employers have implemented “faceless” meetings or have limited the number of meetings that require the camera setting turned on.

As we move forward and continue to break new ground, employers should conduct routine pulse checks on engagement and stress levels and adjust accordingly. We know what candidates are looking for in an employer so the more flexible and collaborative of a culture you can cultivate, the better your positioning as an employer of choice will be.