How do you position your business in the post-pandemic economy? A number of local experts answered that question during a webinar hosted by Lehigh Valley Business in Pennsylvania.

Carol Michaels, an administrator with Populytics, said there are signs that better days are ahead.

“My promising sign is that a significant number of Americans are getting vaccinated. About half of the U.S. population has been vaccinated up until this point,” she said. “The number that we’re shooting for to get herd immunity is 75% or even 80%.”

“From an economic perspective there are a lot of indicators that we’re making an economic recovery and we’re moving in the right direction,” added John Lufburrow of Highmark. “We have clients that are starting to hire people. Some employers are even having trouble filling vacancies that were created during the pandemic.”

But, though there are hopeful signs, there are concerns about how to return to work safely, said Stephanie A. Koenig, of Fitzpatrick Lentz & Bubba. Employers want to bring their workers back in an economically sustainable way, but also in a way that will allow employees to feel safe.

People and businesses weren’t prepared for the impact of COVID 19 or its duration, Michaels said. That meant many changes and adapting to situations over the past year, and that’s been stressful for employees.

“They’ve had to continue to cope and re-cope throughout the year, she said. “Now, coming back to the office post-COVID, whatever your office looks like, will be another adjustment and employers will need to recognize that it’s another change and it’s going to take time to adjust to that. Mental health… and wellbeing absolutely have to be on our radar.”

Koenig is stressing to her clients the importance of communication. “That may mean updating your employee policies as a result,” she said. Things have clearly changed and employers need to be clear about what those changes have been and how they affect company policy. Changes made to make the workplace safer need to be clearly explained to ease employee anxiety about coming back.

One strategy Koenig has seen employers do to increase employee comfort levels is bringing workers on a 50-50 basis – half works in the office one day, and the other half the next. Doing so, she said, gives everyone more space.

Every business is going to be different said Lufburrow. “Don’t benchmark yourself over what someone else is doing. Do what’s best for your employees and your business,” he said. There are many good reasons for companies to want their staff back in the office.

“It’s very difficult to onboard new employees virtually,” he said. “They can get lost in the system. They won’t feel connected. They won’t have that assimilation into your culture.”

Even before the pandemic he said there were disadvantages to being a remote worker, especially if that individual wants to move up in the company. He cited a University of California Berkley study that showed people that onsite employees at Silicon Valley companies were three times more likely to get promoted as those working offsite.

Companies also need to keep track of changing government regulations

“It seems like each week there’s a roll out of a new government measure. They’re not always well thought out from a court perspective,” said Koenig. She said, for example, some will talk about leave, but will give no definition.” Her office is still getting a lot of questions about vaccinations, but her answers are not one size fits all. “Do we require it? Do we recommend it?”

Answers are going to be different for large and small businesses. Her advice is to take the temperature of the workforce. How do they feel about it?

Other things to consider are whether most of your workers are in the office or working remotely. Or are they Unionized?

Use assistance programs

Michaels said companies shouldn’t be afraid to tap into their employee assistance programs to help with strategies and to give employees a place to voice their concerns about returning to the workplace. She said paying attention to employee’s emotional health and wellbeing is going to be an important part of returning to the office.

She said now that companies know they can continue to work remotely how can they do that and help employees to thrive. For example, can staffers use that extra time they don’t spend commuting to and from work to get in a brisk morning walk?

One industry that is seeing a great deal of change is the health care, said Lufburrow. While telemedicine isn’t new, it became much more widely used during the pandemic as many people were hesitant to go to health care facilities. The popularity of telemedicine has remained even as the pandemic has eased. It can be a very efficient way to get the care that you need, he said.

Lasting changes

Koenig said the pandemic will have a lasting effect on the economy of the region. The pandemic has shown that people like to get things delivered to their home. From a commercial real estate perspective, the region is well positioned to tap into that demand. Because of that the warehousing and logistics industry is going to continue to grow.

There are advantages to the new way companies are working. The remote economy has blown up the talent pool that employers are used to, Lufburrow said. They are no longer limited to hiring people locally. While that means a great deal of the Lehigh Valley’s talent is getting poached by other areas, employers may also find that the perfect person to fill that job is in Florida and they can hire that individual to work remotely.

“In every area there’s a shortage of certain specialties,” he said. Remote access to talent can help ease that problem.