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With New Jersey’s COVID-19 vaccine efforts chugging along, employers and business owners are beginning to focus how they should set up their post-pandemic workplaces.

Many may simply attempt to re-create the pre-pandemic experience. But just because the workplace can return to a pre-COVID “normal” once the pandemic is over does not necessarily mean business should take that route.

In fact, the pandemic and its aftermath offer an opportunity for companies to reassess their approaches.

“I hope we don’t go back to where we were … don’t ever waste a good crisis, we learned things about how to do things better,” said Martin Falkenberg, senior vice president of human resources at SUEZ North America, during a March 30 NJBIZ panel discussion titled Positioning Your Company In A Post-COVID Environment.

“For us to not take advantage of those lessons and apply them permanently would be a real missed opportunity.”

One example is Hackensack Meridian Health’s Keep America Safe Program, which employers can use to gauge the strength of their COVID-19 prevention efforts at the workplace. “It’s now kind of not just about COVID and risk-mitigation anymore,” said HMH Vice President Michael Geiger. The program has been “pivoting to an occupational health or wellness program, ‘how do I address absenteeism, the mental piece of my employee? How do I keep people healthy and safe so that they don’t get sick, so that they don’t have to come to the hospital?’”

Kristen Pappas, senior vice president of property management and construction at Onyx Equities, expressed a cautious outlook for the post-COVID workplace. “Once people get more comfortable, we’re going to slip into bad habits again,” she told the panel. “Once the transmission stops … and once the buildings are open again, people are going to get a taste for reacclimating into old ways, I think people are going to be in danger of slipping back.”

In the months to come, businesses are going to have to think about how to keep their workforce socially distanced – especially for essential industries where working from home was difficult or impossible, and as the definition expands for who should return to the office.

“How do you spread people out, give everybody the space? We all would agree the six-foot distance is really great to stop the transmission,” Pappas continued. “Sometimes the space doesn’t always lend to giving that amount, we’re seeing more people looking for less New York City-type areas, we’re seeing a push to the suburban places.”

The result has been a well-documented phenomenon in the residential business: New York City families with considerable spending power opt for the more spacious suburbs across New Jersey. And that effect could persist for years.

Businesses might shift to a hybrid model for the near future, and that could affect a company’s spending habits.

“Some portion, maybe half, a little bit more than half, on any given day coming in,” Falkenberg said, referring to employees coming to the office.

Even then, employers would need to be aware of their worker’s needs, both during the remainder of the pandemic and afterward. “They’ve got kids that still aren’t in school that they’ve got to keep an eye on – other family members” they’re caring for, Falkenberg continued.

Some lingering uncertainties with the vaccine – the degree to which COVID-19 could be spread by those already in-oculated, and the long-term effectiveness against variants and mutations – means some of these mitigation protocols need to stay in place in one form or another for quite some time. “Can you get infected with the virus, be asymptomatic, walk around and then transmit that to somebody else and then have them get infected?” asked HMH Chief Physician Executive Daniel Varga. “It’s one of the reasons why the masking is still so important.”

“The simple surgical or cloth mask … is something you’re wearing to keep someone else safe, not protect yourself,” Varga continued.

And so at least until federal health guidance suggests that masks might no longer be necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19 – which could take some time – Varga said face coverings will still be required at HMH’s patient and non-patient-facing workplaces and corporate offices.

Those uncertainties with the vaccine also could mean that for the near future, requiring workers to be vaccinated would be very difficult to enforce. “It’s unreasonable to ask when it’s under emergency use [authorization],” Varga said of a requirement. But he noted that “I have heard from tons of colleagues that as soon as there’s full approval of the vaccines, that they will mandate the vaccine.”

Dr. Amy Frieman, HMH’s chief wellness officer, suggested that remote work can raise issues around the physical and mental well-being of the employees. Companies should try to make sure that their staff members are taking care of themselves.

That means “making sure we don’t have our team members logging in at 7 a.m. because they rolled out of bed and now they don’t have a commute … and then working until [10 p.m.]. I think boundary-setting is really key.”

“As this hopefully starts to abate and the vaccines increase and the numbers start to drop off, now is the time that we’re really going to start seeing the mental impact and the well-being impact of this crisis,” she added. “The pieces we’ve seen thus far are really only just the beginning.”

She continued that “[i]t’s really looking at your employees and when you see things like conflict increasing or performance issues, somebody who’s showing up late who used to be an exemplary employee, think past performance and think about emotional and psychological well-being.”

That means offering or emphasizing current health and wellness benefits “that maybe hadn’t been utilized,” Falkenberg said. And it means being more flexible with how employers manage their time off policies for workers.

“That’s really what clients are beginning to talk to us about and what we’re beginning to work with them on,” Geiger said of employee mental and physical well-being.