I am a mother and an operations and HR leader whose world has changed drastically because of COVID. 

It’s hard to believe that it has been over six months since the onset of the COVID19 global pandemic. When COVID19 first appeared in the news, it seemed that it would be an isolated set of events. I didn’t feel like it would affect me. I was wrong. As we all know, the impacts of COVID19 have been felt far, wide and deep across industries, and it is forcing organizations in all industries to reevaluate how they manage their employees and structure benefits to support a stable, secure, and healthy workforce. Like many companies looking to adapt quickly in this unexpected crisis, Virtudent rolled out new infection control protocols, COVID19-specific policies, and enhanced benefit offerings (expanded medical coverage, work-from-home policies, and virtual care coordination) during open enrollment. HR teams nationwide are wrestling with how to keep employees safe in the face of an unpredictable and insidious disease. 

I reflect on this with a view that I never thought I would be the one to evaluate safety operations and employee benefits. With a background in managing outpatient medical practices for a large hospital system, I am very familiar with infection control standards after years preparing teams for Joint Commission surveys. Every four years, surveyors would visit the hospital to evaluate top to bottom the policies, procedures and infrastructure of our clinics to ensure that we were set up to deliver safe patient care. However as the head of Human Resources and Operations for Virtudent, I never expected to be faced with the same infection control, health and safety concerns for corporate employees. As the COVID19 reality set in, I knew it would be critical to approach our policies and benefits this year through a new lens of overall employee safety and wellness. Historically, we offered a variety of traditional benefits for employees based on the expectation that employees were doing work from our (dare I say virus-free!) office. For example, we offered a commuter benefit that enabled employees to save money using pre-tax earnings to pay for transit and parking expenses. We promoted free snacks in the company kitchen and monthly all-staff “Funky Fridays” assuming everyone could gather safely in our office common space. But there is no doubt that COVID19 has turned these standard benefits on their head. 

Employees now expect the ability to work remotely with new kinds of flexible benefits that don’t require you to be in the office to participate. The approaches and assumptions of the past no longer apply, and HR teams must redesign benefits and workplace wellness strategies to reflect this new and uncertain reality.

It goes without saying that company leadership is responsible now more than ever for safeguarding the health and wellness of each individual employee. As employees begin to transition back to the workplace, HR must ensure that there are rigorous and transparent protocols around how to reduce disease risk in the office; these may include screening questionnaires, daily symptom reporting, contact tracing, and physical changes to the office to promote social distancing. 

For companies continuing to support remote work, employers need to meet employees where they are by enabling access to valuable health and wellness services at home. Telemedicine is increasingly viewed as an essential element of any employee benefits strategy that can help employers reduce medical costs by connecting employees to a care team from home – and COVID19 has accelerated its adoption and utilization. Regulatory changes have made it easier for providers and patients to take advantage of telemedicine visits. For example, CMS changed the definition of direct supervision to allow the supervising physician to be remote and use real-time, interactive audio-video technology. Major insurance carriers are also reimbursing providers at the same rate for telemedicine visits as in-person visits through the end of 2020. Telemedicine visits for preventive care, dental care, and mental health are a convenient way for employees to get the support they need from the comfort and safety of home; this is why Virtudent expanded its core services during COVID19 to include a nationwide teledentistry platform called Virtudent Connect.

Above and beyond new benefits in health and wellness, employers are starting to recognize the unique challenges for employee parents. As the mother of a two-year-old, I am acutely aware that COVID19 has forced parents to attempt the impossible juggling act of work plus children at home. In April, family benefits platform Cleo conducted a survey of its members which revealed that one in five members were thinking of dropping out of the workforce due to the challenges of managing work plus parenting. It’s more critical than ever for employers to offer employees (especially those that are parents) more support and flexibility to help them get through this challenging time, which may include additional paid leave or child care reimbursement.

And as I think about this blog, I cannot help but feel grateful for my professional career in a hospital system. I am grateful for the experience that I gained working in an organization accustomed to regular scrutiny of employee safety. At Virtudent, we support a staff of hygienists who treat patients, so it also has come naturally for our clinical leadership and myself to collaborate to develop COVID19 policies to reduce risk to our staff and patients. However, in this new world of COVID19, it is not easy for corporate HR leaders outside of healthcare to rapidly develop this expertise. Faced with the possibility of disease spread in the office, many companies are pushing work from home through the end of the year. For those companies that are reopening their doors to employees (or for those that employ essential workers that never closed), HR teams are grappling with how to implement thoughtful safety protocols and redesign employee standards to keep employees healthy and productive. Overall, I expect and hope to see more companies develop internal expertise in infection control, and foresee stronger integration of HR, legal, and risk management within company C-suites. It’s no longer just health care organizations that need to understand infection control and be prepared for the next health crisis; HR leaders in all industries should raise their hands to participate in these critical discussions in order to be better prepared for the future.

As a mom and as an operations and HR leader, I have come to realize it is my job to predict the unexpected and ensure my family and employees are always safe. 

Catherine Jonash

Author Catherine Jonash

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