Friday, May 24, 2024

Round table: Employment discussion about remote work, labor shortages and employee safety

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Almost a year since COVID-19 was declared to be no longer a health emergency, employers are still figuring out best practices and pivoting to meet the challenges that came about from the pandemic. They are also addressing work issues unrelated to COVID. Remote work, employee shortages, retention and workplace safety require continually evolving solutions. Leaders from a variety of employment sectors gathered recently to discuss workplace challenges and how they are meeting them. 


Brooks Pierce, Catapult, Gallagher, Tony Pustizzi, NC Healthcare Association, and Robeson Community College sponsored the discussion. It was moderated by Chris Roush, executive editor at Business North Carolina. It was edited for brevity and clarity.



WOODY: I’m Skip Woody, the area executive vice president with Gallagher. We’re a global risk management company. I think maintaining culture is the No. 1 issue right now.

PUSTIZZI: My name is Tony Pustizzi. I’m a retired police chief, the owner of Four Star Strategies and also a partner for North Carolina Safe Haven Defense. With my background, the biggest concern these days is security and safety of the employees and the visitors of your buildings.

THALLER-MORAN: I’m Jessi Thaller-Moran. I’m a partner at Brooks Pierce law firm. I would say the biggest challenge we see clients facing right now is the patchwork of federal, state and local laws that are not only evolving at all times, but oftentimes in conflict with one another.

LAWLER: I’m Steve Lawler, president and CEO of the North Carolina Health Care Association. All of the things that you mentioned are important right
now. For hospitals and health systems, it’s pipeline.

BLIZZARD: I’m Doug Blizzard, chief solutions officer for Catapult. We’re an employer association of 2,000 member companies and we do human resources consulting for them. Retention is the biggest issue right now.

LOCKLEAR: I’m Kenny Locklear, an assistant vice president at Robeson Community College. What we see in our area is that attrition rates are horrible. We see folks coming in to take classes and then they decide it’s not for them or it’s too hard for them.


WOODY: A few things can throw it off. Leadership is the most important aspect of creating the right culture. I know that we’ve all heard that expression, “walk the walk, talk the talk.” I think leadership has to do that. If your culture is about being kind to one another, recognizing each other for their unique gifts and talents they bring to the workplace, I think the top of the organization needs to make that part of something they measure and consistently focus on trying to make certain understanding where they belong and how they fit in.


WOODY: It’s critical, and it happens one conversation at a time. It’s not a plaque on the wall or a training program. That’s where I think many companies miss it. They might have set their agenda and vision values, but they don’t live it every day. So it’s hard for employees to (become invested) when what they see every day is not what they read on the wall. That’s a recipe for turnover.

LAWLER: In healthcare, it’s practicing what you preach. One of the things about healthcare is it’s super complex with a lot of moving parts. The most important thing about the entire field is that sacred space between a patient and a provider. From an administrative perspective, if what we’re saying is that’s the most important piece, we need to build everything behind that to make sure it supports it. And, it’s visible leadership, reinforcing those traits and those attributes that we hold dear.

BLIZZARD: The workplace today is a lot different than it was 20 years ago, and culture today has to align with that or you’re gonna have a problem, whatever industry you’re in. We have a member who has 16 work shifts right now. Sixteen. They did that because turnover was 20%. They designed a shift to line up with (many employees’ needs.) For example: “You’re a single parent who needs to work these hours. Oh, you want to work just Friday and Saturday, here’s your shift.” This company now has waiting lists for jobs. It’s hard to administer, and the back end is tough, but it allowed them to brand those shifts to a different kind of employee now and they’d gone from high turnover and delayed production lines and supply chain issues to now having waiting lists for most of their jobs. I’m seeing more employers do that. But from most employers we hear: “We can’t do that. We’re not going to do that.” They struggled to identify with a different kind of workplace.”


LOCKLEAR: Within our organization, COVID actually has helped retention because we moved from a straight face-to-face world to a remote world very quickly. We saw the value in that. So a lot of our instructors are now teaching online classes. A lot of the classes that were required face-to-face have changed gears to an online platform. That has helped with our retention.

LAWLER: From a healthcare perspective, for the majority of the workforce, remote working is not an option. Through the pandemic we saw a significant shift of individuals who are at the bedside, especially those who were a little older, or those that were new in the workforce just leave (their healthcare position.) A lot of young, talented folks moved into the traveler pool, which created pressures from a cost perspective on workforce for folks who aren’t involved in direct patient care. A lot of hospitals and health systems moved these people to remote or hybrid scenarios. That did a few things. It helped with retention, allowed them to attract new talent and those organizations that were leasing space for back office staff, they were able to shed some of that additional cost. What we’re seeing now in healthcare is a significant number of people left because it was hard. Because of the economy and because we’re not dealing with a hospital full of COVID patients, people are starting to come back now.

WOODY: Some of those remote traveling nurses want a steady job now?

LAWLER: What a lot of hospitals do, just like any other business, with a temporary worker, that’s an opportunity to convert them from being a traveler to being a full-time employee. You make them feel as a member of the team.

WOODY: I don’t think any of us were very practiced at the remote work environment. We all walked into it, trying to figure it out. I think we’re also all at the spot where we recognize that this is going to stay this way. Some amount of remote work is needed. If I said that we’re 100% in the office all the time, I would have a much smaller pool of people to draw from and I couldn’t run my business. But I think remote work is the enemy of good culture. I think we’re figuring out how you can continue to foster that culture and make people (working remotely) feel appreciated, recognized, wanted and connected.

THALLER-MORAN: Everyone’s talking about the challenges of remote work. We have a workforce that’s now used to this flexibility. There are challenges with having employees in different jurisdictions. If you have an employee in Atlanta and you’re a Raleigh-based business, well, what laws apply to that Atlanta employee? Are you doing their tax withholdings correctly if they’ve set up their own home workstation? What safeguards do you have in place to make sure they’re not giving themselves an issue that will require a chiropractor in the future? Are they logging onto Starbucks’ public WiFi and downloading all of your trade secrets where someone can steal them? It’s certainly an ongoing challenge. As an employer, we have an obligation to provide a safe workplace and that can mean different things under different circumstances. We are getting far fewer questions than we were a year or two ago about things like COVID vaccinations. I think we’re seeing that shift that everyone else has talked about from not just remote work, but maybe different dialogues around what employees are actually looking for from their employers. From a legal risk standpoint, what we often find is that an employee who feels seen and feels appreciated, is in turn not only less likely to leave, but less likely to find ways that they’ve been legally wronged. This is one big outgrowth of COVID and it will be a long time before we see where the chips fall.

BLIZZARD: We lost some good employees, because initially we wanted to get everyone back to the office and we were not going to guarantee work could be virtual. We lost some good people to some national consulting firms out there. That was a lesson for us. We definitely are seeing there’s still a disconnect between what employees want and what owners will allow. A lot of CEOs are still saying: “I want you back in the office and if you don’t like it, go somewhere else.”

THALLER-MORAN: I’ll throw in one more wild card, which is child care. I think that’s a much more front-loaded conversation than it was before the pandemic. Part of why we’re seeing employees get bolder about asking for flexible work arrangements is because there is more awareness than there previously was about child care challenges in the U.S.


PUSTIZZI: Everything that was just mentioned applies now to law enforcement. If you’ve got a department that has good culture, for the most part, they’re still staffed. If you have a department that doesn’t have a stable culture, those officers have moved on. A lot of officers have left because of COVID and a lot of the social injustice stuff that came out. They cannot work remotely. They have to work hours that nobody else wants to work — Sundays, holidays, weekends. So now we see a tremendous loss in the number of officers throughout this country. That is going to substantially impact businesses in terms of response times (to emergencies.) Not only do you have the concern of staff who have a beef or are upset about being terminated, now they are being told to come back to work in an environment that they don’t want to be in. This affects overall security. There have been over 500 mass shootings (four or more people in this country) so far this year. Those are not just in schools, they are in malls, universities, etc. The concern I have is I want to make sure that the business owners are aware that response times are going to be lacking in a lot of cases, unfortunately. That means that we have to do whatever we can to protect our businesses as much as possible, because the officers will come but it’s going to take them longer to get there.

LAWLER: Good point. Workplace safety is probably the second biggest priority after the workforce perspective. Hospitals and health systems, after the prison system, have the second highest incidence of workplace violence. Primarily, (violence) is not staff against staff. We’re taking care of patients and families and visitors at a difficult time, a time of high stress. With the political and national tenor right now, things that would have been unacceptable or things that people would not have done in the past, they’re doing them today. Hospitals are all putting in metal detectors. We’re doing risk assessments for every hospital to see their risk level and then taking action (to reduce risk.) That’s another big investment. We talked about the importance of retention, people feeling safe, and feeling that their employer has measures in place to keep them safe helps with retention. Patient and visitor safety are a priority as well.

BLIZZARD: We do 180,000 background checks a year. We’re seeing state after state after state put a lot of restrictions on what (employers) can and cannot do. It would not shock me if five years down the road, it was illegal to do a background check.
There are a lot of restrictions now on what you can ask (employees or prospective employees) for various reasons. As an employer, you have a responsibility to provide a safe work environment. One key way you do that is to verify you’re hiring the person someone says they are

THALLER-MORAN: The corollary of that is we’re seeing a lot of states and
municipalities enacting legislation that prohibits private enterprises from restricting firearms on the premises. If you can’t control who’s coming in the door with a gun, there’s a lot of patchwork.

LOCKLEAR:  We’re now back to response times, For us, it’s a budget problem. The (security officers) that work for us, they can go elsewhere, and work in a shopping mall and make (much more) money now because of the response times. We’re in competition now. We’re having to raise our pay, which affects our bottom line. We’re seeing that on college campuses across North Carolina. Our students have to be safe, too.

PUSTIZZI: We’re going to see a lot more hiring of specialty security units to staff major businesses. They will be on premise, armed and ready to take out a threat because of the (increased) response times (from police.)


WOODY: I think a lot of companies have taken a step back and tried to re-evaluate what they’re doing because all that happened with pay. When you end up having to pay every new person, maybe more money than you’re paying a more senior person, you end up with some wage compression, which creates other problems. Businesses knowingly did it because they were desperate to find people. Then sometimes they found the people who cared the most about money, they didn’t stick around. There was no sense of connectedness. I’m not sure those people were the best people, but we had to have them in order to get the job done. So understanding your pay is really important and making certain you adhere to that compensation strategy, that’s a big step in the right direction. I think most employees want to feel: “I’m paid fairly. I need a little time off. I need some leave.” A lot of companies have focused on adding additional holidays, more paid time off, and personal days. We also need a new way to help new parents connect with their children and also manage that new responsibility in their life. And we need to protect employees from risk. That could be a security risk, but also the risk of death, disability and the high cost of health care. They need that whole package.


LOCKLEAR: We use professional development a lot. We’re going through leadership seminars to help grow leaders within our organization. Maybe a math teacher doesn’t want to teach their whole career, but they want to move up to an assistant vice president position or maybe a dean position or even the president. We have the discussion and ask how they feel about where they fit within our organization and their aspirations. We’re trying to grow as leaders.

LAWLER: I’m really encouraged about the future of healthcare in North Carolina. We’ve got some of the best universities and teaching programs that are training young men and women to be nurses, doctors and allied health professionals. We’ve got great community colleges that really are the cornerstone of health care, especially in small communities. I’ve run a hospital where my entire nursing staff was community-college trained nurses. I think our future really depends on how we’re connecting to young people. We talk to them about purpose, about how healthcare has a purpose and calling that if you want to make a difference. It’s really important to connect to a young man or a young woman in middle school like great athletic programs do. Those coaches are sitting down with parents and grandparents and saying: “If you come here, here’s what we’re going to do for you.” I think (for employers) it’s the same approach, connecting with young people and saying: “You can have an amazing career in healthcare. We’re going to help you navigate through the process. And we’re going to pay for you to go to school. You can stay in your community and be a leader and set an example for others and you’re going to make good money. You’re going to be one of those people that becomes a role model.”


LAWLER: We have a handful of hospitals and health systems that are partnering with school systems and investing in their STEM programs and teacher education and teacher support to build that pipeline.

THALLER-MORAN: This generation entering the workforce is what I call “education by TikTok.” This generation that we’re all trying to recruit into the workforce has much stronger ideas of what they’re looking for in employment coming from a lot more sources than their best buddies in high school. I don’t know if the answer is for us all to get on TikTok or something. It’s an information source that wasn’t there before.

LOCKLEAR: We do go into the school systems to plant those seeds. We started going into high schools and we evolved to middle schools, and now we’re in elementary schools. We found that we really need to reach them in second or third grade. Ten years ago that was unheard of. This year, six (Robeson Community College) counselors will go out into the school systems.

LAWLER: Another opportunity for North Carolina is we’ve got the third-largest military density in the country. These are people that are highly skilled. They know how to work with teams, they know about leadership. It’s a goldmine for us to be able to spend time at the military bases and start recruiting people because only 17% of the people who serve actually retire. I think, as a state you know, we have to continue to look for ways to fast track education and certificates for those people that are serving.


BLIZZARD: I think it starts with viewing talent now as a scarce resource. Think of all we’ve been through, whether it’s a shortage of materials or something else, when some part of a company’s process becomes scarce, they’ll move heaven and earth to solve it. (The workforce shortage) is still seen by a lot of people as a societal problem or a human resources problem. I think more companies will view talent as what’s now scarce. It requires the entire leadership team to be doing all the things we’ve talked about and that’s the solution. Once you get that mindset shift, you will then do what needs to be done.

LAWLER: I’d say expand the pool. I think we have to change the definition
of who is a potential good employee and who’s trainable. In many cases, the bar is so high for kids to get into college. We’re seeing folks who have high aptitude and a great attitude, but they may not have high academic scores. They are the ones who get into the workforce and are just crushing it. So I think expanding the pool, changing the definition of who we’re looking for definitely makes an impact on the pipeline (of employees) opportunity.

PUSTIZZI: I would say, just like we see nationally, parents right now are concerned when they drop their children off at school, which should never be the case. We talked about the issue before with child care. But when your children are old enough to go to school, parents still worry about (safety at school.) I think there are things businesses can do to ensure a safety net at each business to make sure that their employees feel safe.

THALLER-MORAN: I’ll say, moving with deliberation. I’m coming from the perspective of legal compliance, as we’re making these pivots to hire new talent and as we’re revamping our policies to keep people engaged in the workplace. Make sure that that’s done with some kind of system and some kind of thought and ideally, maybe talking to a lawyer, so there’s not a lot of cleanup that has to happen on the back end. Because employees are a lot happier when you add perks than when you have to circle back and take them back.

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