Roy Friedberg is the CEO of Aura Americathe air purification company offering solutions that make the air clean and safe.
The phrase “back to normal” is often used by business leaders to describe how they expect their employees and businesses to operate after the significant disruptions of the past three years. However, normal still takes different forms compared to the acceptable business routine before the pandemic.
Even as businesses prepare for the return of their employees to the office, there are still unpredictable factors that create an even greater challenge than anticipated for the “big return.” In my discussions with thousands of executives about returning to work, three factors are among the biggest obstacles to combating absenteeism in the workplace—and here are some ways executives can ease concerns around these challenges.
1. Address the challenges of raising children and change expectations about working while sick.
One factor that prevents employees with children from coming to the office regularly is the need to care for their children. A 2021 study by McKinsey & Company found that about one in five children missed 15 or more days of school in a year. Now, hit by the perfect storm of RSV, Covid and flu this season, absenteeism from work due to childcare is higher than ever. Abha Bhattarai notes that “More than 100,000 Americans missed work last month due to childcare issues, an all-time high that is surprisingly even higher than during the peak of the pandemic, according to new data from Bureau of Labor Statistics.”
As partners and business leaders, we know that improving air quality and ventilation systems in schools keeps kids and teachers in the classroom and parents in the office. (Full disclosure: My company provides air cleaning solutions as well as more.)
A healthy school environment is a crucial step in helping both children and parents “get back to normal”, but at the same time we must accept that we are living in a new reality. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, employees often came to the office when they had mild cold or flu symptoms, leading to more illnesses. Flexible work-from-home policies can help prevent these intra-office outbreaks and allow teams to care for themselves and their sick children.
2. Promote safer commutes.
As I mentioned in my previous article, returning to the office starts with a healthy journey. Walking, cycling and using public transport can have a positive effect on people’s physical and mental health. Not traveling by car is also an important step in reducing our environmental footprint.
We can encourage our public officials to improve transit options for Americans and make these spaces more accessible and healthy. For example, our company partners with transit operators to improve air quality and ventilation systems in mass transit. What we’ve learned from these partnerships is that many urban areas want to make improvements and increase ridership – and many have the funding to invest in new systems and creative ideas to do so. For other companies that are able to help, I suggest you build trust with local officials and offer solutions and they will likely want to work with you.
As employers, we can play a direct role in encouraging our team members to commute to the office as well. Offering commuting benefits and scholarships for public transport or bike equipment are small investments we can make to help employees get to the office safely while protecting the environment. Depending on their industry, organizations might also offer flexible working hours to allow their employees to commute during off-peak times of the day.
3. Prioritize health.
Occupational health has become a national issue. When people face challenges that negatively impact their well-being, research shows that it can affect not only their home life but also their work life; they may be less productive, tend to make more mistakes, and need more rest. Employees with poor mental health, difficult relationships with co-workers and inadequate support may consider “quietly leaving” or leaving their employer for good.
Employers feel the impact of their employees’ mental health and they can play an important role in helping their employees improve their well-being. As leaders, I believe we must make workplaces healthy and safe spaces for our teams. We can extend health benefits to include mental health care, offer mental health days, encourage a healthy work-life balance and support good workplace relationships between colleagues and managers. It’s also worth it financially. According to Mineral research, companies that adapted to the changing needs of employees scored the highest during the pandemic.
Anxiety levels rise for many employees at the thought of changing the usual work routines they’ve adopted over the past three years of working from home. For some, the idea of being in a crowded elevator or conference room or wasting time out of their day commuting can cause extreme stress and the possibility of quitting. Embracing these challenges and demonstrating a commitment to keeping employees and their families healthy and safe inside and outside the office is critical to welcoming more people back to the office.
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