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Small Businesses Navigating the New Normal

July 14, 2020

By Mark Strippy, Vice President Sales & Service at the Ahola Corporation

As Michigan battles COVID-19, we’re beginning to see glimpses of what the “new normal” at work could look like for the region, and how business leaders will have to adapt. While many businesses have been shut down or forced to reduce their operations, we’re starting to see the slow reopening by industry in Michigan. We’re also seeing some essential businesses that are thriving during the shutdown, and desperately searching for employees to hire and onboard.

According to a survey conducted in April 2020 by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and Oxford Economics, about 3 percent of 1,000 HR professionals within the United States said that their salaried employees were working remotely when the year began. That number rose to 64 percent by April 2020. This is a massive change for many small business owners as they are now managing employees remotely, interviewing and onboarding new employees virtually, and starting to plan how to bring employees back to work safely and confidently. Companies experiencing these disruptions to their HR functions should consider the following key strategies.

Nearly all small business owners today are struggling to balance the desire to get back up and running as soon as possible with employee safety and liability. Generally, employees do not have a right to refuse to work based only on a generalized fear of becoming ill if their fear is not based on objective evidence of possible exposure. However, under the current circumstances, where COVID-19 continues to be a threat across the country, we think it would be difficult to show that employees have no reason to fear coming in to work. Consider emphasizing all of the safety methods you have put in place (such as scheduled handwashing, frequent disinfection of surfaces, social distancing rules, reduced customer capacity, staggered shifts, or more extreme measures if warranted by your industry). Under Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules, an employee’s refusal to perform a task will be protected if all of the following conditions are met: Where possible, the employee asked the employer to eliminate the danger, and the employer failed to do so; the employee refused to work in “good faith,” which means that the employee must genuinely believe that an imminent danger exists; a reasonable person would agree that there is a real danger of death or serious injury; and there isn’t enough time, because of the urgency of the hazard, to get it corrected through regular enforcement channels, such as requesting an OSHA inspection. We recommend relying on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and MIOSHA Workplace Guidelines for establishing safe working conditions at this time.

For many businesses that are looking to scale their workforce quickly or begin rehiring, COVID-19 poses a unique problem. The traditional method of onboarding where new hires sit with HR for a few hours to complete the necessary paperwork isn’t appropriate with social distancing guidelines. Many businesses that are hiring may be fully remote, and would need to conduct onboarding completely virtual. We recommend utilizing HR software that can send the employee the new hire paperwork electronically, to get started from home. Required documents like emergency contacts, Form I-9, direct deposit information, and benefits can be completed all before their first day.  Companies can even customize a welcome email with the Employee Handbook or the mission and vision. Employees hired in this new era won’t experience the typical onboarding experience, so employers should be sure to go the extra mile and find ways to introduce a new hire to company culture virtually. Leaders can schedule video calls to introduce new hires to their new team and other co-workers. Constant communication and support are especially important in a time where people may feel even more disconnected than normal.

We’re all navigating this “new normal” for work together, and things will continue to change. Companies today face a new reality of embracing virtual work in the era of social distancing and COVID-19. Staying on top of the biggest trends impacting companies today will allow you to adapt, keep growing, remain compliant and come out on top.

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