HR REPORT: Preparing for the End…Work in the Post-Pandemic World

Ask any teacher and they will tell you that over the long summer vacation, students take a step backwards.  The first month of the new school year is often a refresher on the lessons learned during the prior school year.  Once refreshed, students are ready to focus on, and absorb, new material.  Teachers will also tell you that after summer vacation, students need a refresher in what is, and is not, considered to be acceptable school behavior.  The first few weeks of the school year are often a time when rules and expectations need to be reasserted and when students need to be reminded that there are behavioral norms and standards that must be followed.

For municipal employees, the pandemic has been, in some ways, like that long summer vacation.  Not that employees have had time off or leisure; to the contrary, many have worked harder than ever as they perform their regular duties while trying to keep themselves, their coworkers, their families, and the community safe.  But the pandemic has required employees to take a vacation from normal workplace interactions.  Employees are necessarily distanced from their co-workers, have less interaction with community members, and have generally been forced to be less social.

The anticipated lifting of pandemic restrictions will bring an end to this long, unwanted “vacation” from social interaction.  Given the length of time that has passed since restrictions were put in place, and the exuberance that may accompany the return to a mask and social distancing-free work environment, it is reasonable to assume that there will be some slippage in employee understanding of, and adherence to, the norms and standards of workplace behavior.

Employers are responsible for assuring that employees have a clear understanding of what is expected from them.  For example, many employers have been pandemic-flexible and forgiving on tardiness and attendance, dress codes, and other work rules.  Employers who intend to return to pre-pandemic norms will need to inform employees of these changes, and make it clear which rules and policies will be restored and what the consequences will be for a failure to meet behavioral and performance expectations.

All public employers (hopefully) have developed policies prohibiting discrimination and harassment, workplace violence, retaliation, and other prohibited behaviors.  Employers have also provided training (again, hopefully) in support of those policies.  Employee slippage in these areas could result in financial liability and workplace disruption.  Employers should assume that pre-pandemic lessons may have been forgotten and that employees will need to be refreshed on these important subjects.  Employees may also need reminders on how they are expected to deal with the public and the professionalism expected in the performance of their duties.

In anticipation of the return to “normal,” employers should consider reviewing, updating, and reissuing workplace conduct policies.  Updated policies should include any pandemic changes that are being made permanent (I am not sure that I will ever wear a tie again) and those that are being set aside in favor of pre-pandemic standards.  Employers should also provide employees with training in support of those reissued policies.  Making expectations clear should reduce the risk that the ability to remove the mask is not seen as license to misbehave.