MedCity Influencers

To grow post Covid, engage your employees — all of them

When business conditions improve, growth will be predicated on an organization’s success in calling back (and retaining) motivated employees who have been out for significant periods of time. 


The Coronavirus pandemic is forcing all of us to reexamine the way we live almost every aspect of our lives.  If we focus specifically on the impact on organizational leadership, it’s clear that pre-Covid practices of leading through crisis are still relevant today.  In fact, we see leaders across all industries demonstrating important principles like frequent communication, transparency, providing “reasons to believe” and strategizing post-crisis growth. But there are unique circumstances that require innovative ideas to address current problems, and this is one of them.

Businesses everywhere are experiencing the profound economic impact of Covid-19.  Relief packages have been put in place to provide lifelines, but these aid programs are complex and sometimes difficult to navigate.  Included in these packages are provisions that make furloughs a more attractive option to layoffs, which is the traditional cost-cutting measure.  As a result, millions of workers have been placed on furlough; mandatory, temporary work stoppages where workers are not paid but do remain employed and receive benefits.

As organizations consider the short- and long-term impact of these programs, their ability to successfully rebound will be a direct outcome of their leaders’ ability to engage associates who have continued working through the downturn.  And when business conditions improve, growth will be predicated on an organization’s success in calling back (and retaining) motivated employees who have been out for significant periods of time.  Leaders I spoke with from medical device manufacturers to regional health systems are focusing on continued engagement so associates will be productive when a safe return is possible.

In many cases, the first step to engaging furloughed associates is to help them understand their current benefits and present options to maximize these benefits wherever possible.

“Nearing the end of our busier months, we had a number of our staff volunteer for furloughs when asked,” reveals Lisa Gutierrez, Chief People Officer at Fast Paced Health, which runs 113 urgent care clinics in rural areas across the southeast. “Our HR team is working with individual employees to provide additional information regarding our medical benefits. Additionally, we are working to help our people assess the value of non-medical employee contributed benefits, instruct on the applicability of these benefits on furlough and how to change benefits during furlough or open enrollment later in this year.”

Engaging people in ways that are meaningful to them should be the goal of any organization. Individual leaders will know their direct reports best and can play a key role in simply reaching out to their staff, checking on their personal and family’s well-being and providing as much information as possible on future plans. Maintaining the human connection, authentic empathy, and transparent communication will go a long way to maintaining bonds created before the furlough period began.

While many organizations are taking steps to keep furloughed employees close, there are risks.

“Make sure the actions you take to engage furloughed workers are applied uniformly,” counsels Chuck Rodman, founding partner of Rodman Employment Law based in the Boston area. “Including all associates on a particular team and not leaving anyone out is key to avoiding claims of disparate treatment at a later time.”

Beyond claims of uneven treatment, there are other pitfalls to avoid.  “Since furloughed workers are not being paid, they cannot be asked to perform work without violating wage and hour laws. Be extremely thoughtful of how employees may interpret your communications,” Rodman added. “If there are voluntary activities such as training or social hours which some organizations are offering, make sure to explicitly say these are voluntary and to express that there is no implicit pressure to participate from anyone within the organization.”

As furloughs extend into weeks and months, other issues are beginning to cloud the picture. For example, there may be a point where benefits coverage may be impacted if non-active furloughed employees remain on these plans. According to Mitchell Andrews, a Partner at The Plexus Group, a benefits consulting firm based in the Chicago area, there are numerous stakeholders working to address the issue.

“Insurance carriers are trying to provide flexibility by allowing employers to keep employees on their plans and are welcoming individual exceptions,” Andrews explains. “Additionally, the Department of Labor, IRS and Treasury Department released guidance on May 1st to support employees maintaining insurance via ‘extended timelines.’ This essentially pauses (or delays) the traditional timeframes until after the national emergency is over.”

Given how quickly the landscape is shifting and the ramifications for violating plans, leaders should be sure to consult with their insurance brokers, plan administrators and/or legal counsel before making changes or communicating with associates.

Additionally, organizations are beginning to re-examine policies that were enacted only weeks ago that allowed non-essential employees who were concerned about safety to stay home without consequences.  For example, now that some hospitals are restarting elective surgeries, how to handle a caregiver who does not feel safe returning to the operating room is a difficult policy decision.  To address employee concerns while maintaining operational, clinical and financial integrity, many organizations are taking actions like offering educational videos on how workers will be kept safe, along with 24-48 hour “reflective periods” during which individuals can consider whether they will return to work or risk disciplinary action.

Leaders also need to consider that the world in which employees began their furlough is not the same world we live in today.  The concept of “re-recruiting” existing staff on an ongoing basis is one which has gained popularity in recent years. Many organizations will have fewer jobs post-crisis as a result of layoffs, making it necessary to cross-train employees.  However, there is a silver lining. Cross-training will allow employees to grow professionally, learn new skills, and potentially increase their pay over the long-term; all drivers of engagement.

In addition to “re-recruiting”, organizations should think about “re-onboarding” those who have been out as well. Aspects of an organization’s culture may have changed and individual job descriptions may have evolved. Leaders should be thoughtful about communicating what has occurred while furloughed associates were out which led to these changes.  Individualized communications and support through the reintegration phase will be critical to ramping up productivity and retaining workers through the longer term.

Reintegration, or reunification will be a theme of significant importance as organizations move toward growth once again.  Rebuilding supply chains, reestablishing relationships with patients/customers, and successfully reintegrating workforces which have been separated for months will not be easy.  The leaders who attend to the needs of all their people, are clear-eyed about changes to their culture and thoughtful about what is needed to reunite their own workforce, will be the ones who are most successful as we move out of this dark period.

 Photo: marchmeena29, Getty Images

As a partner with Banister International, Steve brings substantial consulting and executive experience from the Healthcare, Financial Services, and Business Services sectors. Over the last 20+ years, he has successfully recruited executive and C-suite leaders in the areas of operations, marketing, sales, product development, finance, human resources, and information technology.

Prior to joining Banister, Steve worked as the Senior Vice President & Chief People Officer at Press Ganey Associates, a leading provider of healthcare performance improvement insights and consulting. In this position, Steve oversaw all aspects of the HR function. Early in his career with Press Ganey, Steve led the transition from a publicly traded to private-equity owned portfolio company. He worked closely with senior leadership to ensure all aspects of the talent agenda supported critical business needs during the transition, which led to nearly a 40% revenue increase and 30% employee growth rate during his tenure with the company. In addition, Steve implemented a wide range of world-class solutions while at Press Ganey, including the roll out of an end-to-end HR technology solution, development of an M&A playbook, and creation of a full lifecycle talent management platform. This culminated in Press Ganey being recognized as one of the “Top 150 Best Places to Work in Healthcare” by Becker’s Healthcare.

Prior to his time at Press Ganey, Steve served as Vice President of Human Resources at Accretive Health (now R1 Revenue Cycle). While at Accretive, he was responsible for driving HR strategy, while simultaneously leading the talent, compensation and HRIS centers of excellence. During this time, Steve partnered with leadership on changing the overall business model and restructuring the compensation plan, as well as leading a series of reorganizations that helped the company better maneuver through a dynamic legal and commercial environment.

Before joining Accretive, Steve worked in executive HR business partner roles within financial services at American Express and Standard & Poors’ in addition to recruiting and generalist positions at The McGraw-Hill Companies. Prior to his corporate career, Steve worked for Waveland International, a boutique executive search firm with offices in NY and Chicago.

Steve earned a B.S. from Union College and an M.Ed from Springfield College (MA). He enjoys running, playing golf, cooking and coaching his kids’ teams in baseball and soccer. He currently lives in Deerfield, Illinois.

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