Best return to work practices during COVID-19

Remote Work

Remote Work Alistair Berg - Getty Images

Once COVID-19 hit, the nonprofit sector had to dramatically shift from working in the office to working remotely, like many other sectors. The nonprofit sector also had frontline and essential workers to consider, creating an equity issue throughout organizations. 

Nonprofit employees are now being asked to slowly come back into the office. But how can nonprofit organizations keep their workers safe, especially amidst the continuation of the pandemic? 

New York Nonprofit Media spoke with Michael West, Senior Attorney for the New York Council of Nonprofits, Daisy Martinez, Operations Manager for the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation and Michelle Jackson, Executive Director of Human Services Council about the return to work, following CDC guidelines and keeping up worker morale by creating online community events. 

What are the best protocols for nonprofits to follow during COVID-19 to keep workers safe?

Michael West: Presently, a major priority for all nonprofits should be compliance with the New York State Health and Essential Rights Act. Beyond what's required by law, nonprofit employers should look to guidance offered by the CDC, the New York State Department of Health and local county boards of health for best practices and tips concerning worker safety. Armed with such resources, employers can then develop organizationally specific protocols that can best keep workers and consumers safe while continuing operations. For the time being, these protocols would always require use of employer-supplied PPE, social-distancing and regular cleaning and disinfecting. Many employers would then be able to go further by adopting staggered schedules, facilitating remote work, etc. What’s appropriate and possible would be unique to each employer.

Michelle Jackson: The vaccine is mostly mandated both by city government contracts and by organizations themselves, and obviously that's something we support. Similarly following the CDC guidance of boosters are clear. I think the biggest thing is having better PPE, that's a resource issue. The N95 and KN95 are not easy to come by. Masking and vaccines as well as the booster shot is a best practice certainly. 

Daisy Martinez: Nonprofits are currently monitoring daily the COVID-19 protocols to keep employees safe at the workplace. Depending on the staff size, the employer can allow 50% of employees to be at the workplace and must complete a health screening before arriving at the workplace. Employees can work on a rotation schedule, ensuring that they’re being equitable to all staff and not demanding any employee to work from the office daily regardless of their role/position. The employer must ensure cleaning services daily and resources such as face masks, disinfectant and hand sanitizer are available for all staff.

For nonprofit workers who can work from home, should they be given the option permanently or should they be on a plan to come back to the office with protocols in place?

West: The availability of remote work is unquestionably a consequence of COVID-19 that will outlast the pandemic. When the pandemic subsides—quite possibly within weeks—each employer will need to have assessed its organizational priorities in terms of remote work, something that can go beyond simply working from home. Many nonprofits will continue with remote work just as they have since March of 2020. Others will want everyone back in the office as soon as possible. By virtue of the services they provide, there are tons of nonprofits that never really utilized remote work in the first place. I can say that if an employer seeks to bring everyone back to their desks, they should do so incrementally and with sensitivity. In addition to nearly 900,000 Americans who didn’t survive COVID-19, there are tens of millions, maybe many tens, who are deeply scarred by the pandemic. For many workers long accustomed to remote work, the return to the office is jarring, and for some, panic inducing. Being heavy handed only amplifies the associated stress. For those employers continuing with remote work, reliance on comprehensive policies addressing eligibility, scheduling, performance, technology, etc. is essential to assure that there’s equity in terms of access to remote work, productivity remains high, and confidential information is properly secured. Either way, now is the time for nonprofit employers to identify their post-pandemic plans for remote work.

Jackson: We should all stay home, if we can. That is a luxury that many nonprofit organizations and frontline workers don't have. So, an organization can rotate their staff or only have essential frontline staff in the office. They should be really examining the equity or the diversity of their workers. Who are those workers? Who has to be in the office? What are they paid? And are you able to create a system where you're spreading around who needs to be in the office and compensating the people who do need to be in the office fairly? I think the biggest thing you can do for office culture right now is to pay attention to what you're asking staff and who you're asking it of. At the Human Services Council, we have really heard from our executives that, yes, their higher paid staff are probably the set of workers, right with the CFO, that do their work from home. But is that equitable when your frontline workers are lower paid and have to be in the office? So I think taking a look at the equity of your organization and what you're asking of different staff is hugely important. The best thing any organization can do for their culture is to be paying attention to that and trying to make it as equitable as possible. 

Martinez: Some nonprofits have decided to completely work from home and save expenses on rent and utilities and only rent spaces when meetings are necessary. Other nonprofits are contemplating hybrid models and are in the process of creating policies for the organization. Employers are not enforcing or encouraging employees to return to the office, mainly the employer wants the employees to feel comfortable and ready to return to work.

How do we keep up the morale for direct service workers who cannot work from home?

West: As the pandemic drags-on, it has legitimately become increasingly challenging to keep-up morale. Most efforts at attempting to quickly improve morale have traditionally relied on the very sort of parties, picnics and other celebrations that the pandemic presently keeps us from fully enjoying. The fact that it’s the middle of winter, the holidays are over and Omicron numbers remain off the charts certainly doesn’t help. If public gatherings are out of the question, reassess if various online platforms can be used as a means not just for work, but for fostering camaraderie, (appropriate) water cooler talk and other lighthearted aspects of work that most of us traditionally enjoyed. Many nonprofits have been successful at using Zoom teams for such purposes. The key to success seems to be advance planning and an organizational commitment to try and make it work.

Martinez: Keeping the morale for direct service workers has been a struggle for employers. To maintain morale, some employers have incentives for employees who have to go in person to the office, some examples of incentives for employees are $1,000 Wellness reimbursement that employees can use tax free for whatever they want, FSA added money for essential items, over the counter medications, doctor’s co-pays and so forth, and extra vacation days, sick days and the option to rollover days for the next year if unused.

Jackson: I think we've been seeing our nonprofit executives become really creative, doing virtual town halls, trying to reward staff with increased time off, bringing the community back together and doing fun events. I know in the middle of January with this wave, it feels like no events happened. But, they have taken moments over the last couple of years to celebrate their staff, like doing weekly town halls. Letting people connect socially, even if it's over zoom. I think having leadership be really accessible to staff is essential. Like I said, a lot of our executives are doing either weekly like brown bag lunches where people get on Zoom and can just chat and ask questions. Anything that you can do to build a sense of community matters. 

I think more importantly, there are low paid workers in the state and that is 100% a responsibility of the government and nonprofits. It's just ridiculous to circumvent the fact that we all in the nonprofit sector are mission driven because we all have mouths to feed and we should be compensated appropriately for our work. I want to clearly put the low pay on the backs of the government who have underpaid these workers for years on contracts and say that people who want to retain and compensate their staff for doing some of the most important work during the pandemic are figuring out how to provide bonuses, safe transportation and pay raises. That is not easy. So I want to make sure it doesn't just pay them more. That's a simple solution. But at the end of the day, we have a national labor problem and the government needs to step up and pay these workers their worth and the nonprofit sector similarly has to be investing in their workforce and thinking about the type of contracts they take and how they compensate their own workers to be able to retain them.