5 updates you should be making to your pre-COVID Employee Handbook now

The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. Now is a great time to review and update your Employee Handbook with those "temporary" policies

The global COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenging time for most business functions, and Human Resource Management is no exception.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenging time for most business functions, and Human Resource Management is no exception. We've had some tough trade-offs to make in the face of unprecedented circumstances, incomplete information, and confusing advice from our local and national leadership. Balancing employee and customer safety with preserving the health of our businesses and economies has been a struggle.

We have all had to adjust, as have our attitudes and policies relating to how our employees do their jobs. Many of these adjustments have been made in realtime in response to a rapidly-evolving landscape – and while fit for purpose in the moment, they are not all sustainable in the long run.

Whatever we want to believe, the pandemic is far from over (just look at what is going on with the Tokyo Olympics this week). In the US, vaccination rates are slowing, cases are rising, and the virus will likely continue to evolve. We are all going to have to get used to the fact that we will be living (and working) in limbo for a long time to come. There will not be an overnight transition to a new normal. Things will evolve – very slowly – from where we are today.

In the HR profession, we know that having practical, sustainable and well-communicated policies is a healthy thing for everyone in the workplace – wherever that may be. Given that we're in this for the long haul, now might be the time for you to consider updating your Employee Handbook. Here are 5 things we suggest you consider if your pre-COVID handbook is starting to look a little out of touch.

1 - Remote Working

Regardless of your industry or location, you've probably had employees working from home during the pandemic. For many businesses, this has been the first time they have formally permitted this mode of working. For some, the flexibility of working from home, along with avoiding the commute, has been a godsend. For others, it has been a profoundly terrible experience as employees have struggled to cope with isolation, with less-than-ideal working environments, Zoom Fatigue, and even stresses on family relationships. Whatever your experiences, the attitude of the workforce has shifted, for a long time to come, and perhaps forever. What lessons have you learned about remote working in your business over the last 18 months? Do you have a fair and documented policy about who can work from home and within what parameters?

Problems to watch for:

  • Inconsistent treatment between employees – either individually or as a department/group
  • Unclear expense policy – who is paying for internet/electricity/trips to the office/stationary?
  • Unfair allocation of work – those working on-premises have to take on more simply because they are on-site
  • Health and Safety – the business is responsible for providing a safe working environment if it allows its employees to work from home
  • Employees moving out of state – you'll have to update your payroll, taxes and perhaps even your employment-related policies and practices

2 - Flexible Working

Remote working and Flexible working tend to be correlated. As more people work from home, and without the rigidity of the daily commute, individual's working patterns tend to spread out beyond the traditional 9-5. What is your company's attitude to flexible working? Do you need to define 'core hours' where everyone is available for contact and/or meetings? Can you and your employees benefit from an asycnhronous working day?

Problems to watch for:

  • Employees becoming too rigid around their own preferred remote working pattern
  • Employees becoming stressed/exhausted by feeling that they are expected to work to other people's non-traditional schedules
  • Employees becoming distracted and/or disengaged without the support of a defined working pattern

3 - Office conduct

Most employers have introduced new office conduct rules or guidelines during the pandemic. For example, staying away from the workplace when exhibiting symptoms, maintaining social distance where possible, or masking policy. If you believe that we will be living with the virus for some time to come, then you should consider making updates to your handbook to send a clear message that these protections are still in place.

Problems to watch for:

  • Compliance issues (sometimes a sign that your rules are too strict or difficult to adhere to)
  • Complacency
  • COVID precaution fatigue

4 - Travel Policy

Travel of all kinds has been severely disrupted during the pandemic, and business travel is no exception. Despite the mass adoption of virtual meeting technology such as Zoom and Teams, many employees who are accustomed to business travel have itchy feet and are keen to get back on the road or in the air. Businesses now have a unique opportunity to review travel policies, perhaps with the goal of reducing travel costs or carbon emissions in addition to reducing the COVID transmission risk. If these non-COVID-related goals sound compelling, now is the time to set new policy while many people are still in the mode of questioning whether or not a meeting can occur virtually before booking those tickets.

Problems to watch for:

  • Going too far – some meetings, e.g. complex relationship-based sales or account development, are still better face-to-face and should be allowed as long as they can be conducted safely

5 - PTO

Progressive employers have made serious changes to Paid Time Off policy during the pandemic. Sick time benefits and PTO in general have increased (predominantly where COVID related) both in terms of total paid time allowed, but also in terms of qualifying events – for example taking PTO to get the vaccine, caring for sick family members, or dealing with childcare availability issues.

PTO is a key benefit for employee attraction and retention, and employees with families especially appreciate a family-friendly PTO policy. Consider making some of these changes permanent.

Problems to watch for:

  • Moral Hazard – a well-known term from the world of economics describing the effect that people are less likely to take action to avoid a problem if the personal liability is reduced (in this case by a generous PTO policy). Why would your employees spend time and money looking for childcare solutions if your company is offering additional PTO to care for a child?

Bonus Tip

As the COVID situation has evolved rapidly over the last 18 months, you will no doubt have thought carefully about a structured communication plan to keep your employees informed – but have you considered new employees coming into your business? As changes to policy have been made reactively as the events of COVID unfolded, we have learned that new employees are being left in the dark. Our bonus tip is to make sure that your current COVID protections and policies are comprehensively covered as part of the onboarding process. Keeping your Employee Handbook up to date, even with policies and guidelines that are intended to be temporary, is an excellent way to achieve this.

NorthstarPMO offers a range of Employee Handbook services that can help you create and maintain a modern, compliant handbook, including policy creation, document authoring, compliance review, and a live updates subscription to keep you current. Talk to us today about how our affordable services can benefit your organization.