As businesses get back to work, they’re forging a new path

Business and health leaders weigh in on the challenges and opportunities of returning to a post-COVID-19 workplace

Thousands of businesses and their employees across New Jersey are at a crossroads. Many have been working remotely — or at least partly remotely — for the last year and now face the prospect of returning to the workplace in the coming months.

But what does that mean, and how do businesses best navigate that new path?

NJ Spotlight News on Wednesday hosted its latest virtual roundtable on the topic, and brought together business and health leaders to talk about the challenges and the opportunities.



Scott Behson, PhD, Professor of Management, Silberman College of Business, Fairleigh Dickinson University, author of “The Whole-Person Workplace”

Clarice Holmes, RN, Chief Clinical Officer, Members Healthplan NJ

Michele N. Siekerka, Esq., President & CEO, New Jersey Business & Industry Association

Stephanie A. Werner, Strategic Health & Well-Being Consultant, former Human Resources executive, Celgene Corporation, Metropolitan Museum of Art



Rhonda Schaffler, NJ Spotlight News Business Correspondent


Edited excerpts from the event:

First things to think about:

Scott Behson: “It’s not just about the physical safety and well-being of our workforce. It’s really about their psychological well-being and their psychological safety as well. The key challenge for managers and leaders everywhere in 2021 is: How do we create a workforce that feels safe coming to work?”

Clarice Holmes: “The biggest thing is whatever you have as your reference material — which really should be CDC guidelines, your attorneys, your human resource department — working together with the leadership team to determine and create policies and procedures really will help in communicating those to the employees.

“You do have to continue to social distance and wear masks. Not everyone is going to be able to take a vaccine for health-related reasons or otherwise. So you literally have to operate as if the vaccine hasn’t been given, even though we have a little bit of a false sense of security.”

Michele Siekerka: “Businesses have been going pretty much quarter by quarter now. Remember when we came into 2021, we were staring down a resurge and winter at that point, and nobody was contemplating coming back. But as we are coming through now, what I hear mostly is targeting the fall. So it’s almost like a back-to-school if we can. And these things go hand in hand. If we can’t get our kids back in school on a regular schedule, we don’t get our workforce back to work.

“This is all about setting expectations but also understanding what the rules of engagement are from two sides. In terms of keeping our workplace safe, NJBIA has a workplace safety business certification program, which is all of the protocols for CDC as well as OSHA. So anyone who governs workplace safety, we have all the guidelines. It’s a three-hour training.”

Stephanie Werner: “It’s really important for organizations to really key in on their employees and really listen to the feedback that they have to provide. And in hand with that, it’s really important for organizations to also encourage cross-functional teams to assemble within organizations across all functions, inclusive of all levels, with diversity, with partners present so that it’s really a team effort. It really is going to take a village to really understand how to approach individuals.”

The new normal?:

Stephanie Werner: “I call it the next reality or the new work environment. I would say not to say the new normal — none of us really know what normal is and how we even define that.”

Michele Siekerka: “What we hear about most is hybrid. Everyone recognizes that individuals are going to need the flexibility to work from home and remote. However, we have to marry that with teaming in place, because that’s where culture and communication is so important.”

Scott Behson: “Maybe things weren’t looking so great before in the old way … In 2019, you came to work, but maybe that wasn’t good for everybody. And maybe that didn’t help people balance the rest of their lives or be able to do some of the things they would like to have done. It would be a shame if we lived through this horrible pandemic without learning something from it and realizing that we can experiment and we can maybe look at how can we make things better in our workplaces that work for us.”

Mental health:

Clarice Holmes: “The top three [health] diagnoses probably across the state are all behavioral-health related … Everyone’s talking about, ‘Oh, we have so much more productivity because people are home and we’ve got people coming in and working from home on Saturdays.’ But what we’re also finding is less [paid time off]. We have more people working longer hours, which from a productivity perspective sounds awesome, until people get so burned out that they can’t function.”

Scott Behson: “I talked to companies that had mental health days. Every third Friday was just a whole company day off during this pandemic, so people don’t burn out. I’ve had companies have policies that you cannot check your email after seven o’clock at night — period, end of story. You cannot log into your work computer on the weekends. They could lock you out. So there are ways that the companies that care about this can do this. And, of course, managers and leaders need to role-model this. And instead of emailing your team at 11:30 at night, save that email for 9:30 the next morning.”

Women in the workplace:

Stephanie Werner: “Well, I think that [the pandemic] has definitely shone a light on the importance of women in the workforce and how all-encompassing this role is . . . It also has taught us that employers have been able to step up and have been able to provide resources for working parents, working moms. There’s a lot that we can do and a road ahead of us. But there’s a lot more that we’ve learned that we can do to support women in the workforce.”

Should vaccines be required?: 

Michele Siekerka: “Bottom line, businesses can mandate the vaccine. However, the question is, should they? And what policy should they follow in doing so or not doing so to make sure they’re not running afoul of any anti-discrimination laws?”

The ‘war for talent’:

Stephanie Werner: “There will be a war for talent potentially down the road where employees will eventually be looking for … employers that really meet their needs.”

Closing words:

Stephanie Werner: “This is a pivotal time, and it’s such a great opportunity for everyone to come together and to find a new path that could be even better than anything that we could have really thought about or planned for. In the whole process, the most important thing is really the employee. This should be a really human-centric process, a holistic view. And then in the end, it’s really all about how we care for each other in this process. And so when we lose our way, just coming back to something very basic, which is just the emphasis on caring for each other, if we can do that, we’ll nail it.”

Scott Behson: “I interviewed over 40 organizations right in the middle of this crisis about how they were operating, what was working, what wasn’t, what lessons they were learning going forward. And so much of it came to empathy, communication and understanding that employees are not just a piece of the machine. They’re people that need to be supported as such. And the best employers, I think, will get through this and future crises by leading with those principles.”

Clarice Holmes: “I will definitely say as a clinical person, not to forget about the behavioral health implications of all of this that’s going on, in particular the folks that are not used to working from home or it’s going to be now more virtual. You really have to teach people how to do that, because they just think you sit at the computer and you’re there. You have to teach them when to get up and take a walk, when to have socialization. So I call it the planned socialization activities, which could be a morale and retention committee, is what I call it, at our particular company.”

Michele Siekerka: “We need to stop and think about what’s the business model of the future that is going to be the next best iteration of ourselves as a company for the good, as everyone has said of the workforce, that we support not just the products and services that we deliver. At the heart of all of that is good culture. And I truly believe that the good leaders are going to have the best-laid path to that reinvention while they recover.”



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