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Employers, let your staff stay home

The government is not currently requiring everyone to stay out of the office, but it's still your responsibility to help flatten the curve

I have a humble request of Israeli employers: I ask all those whose work is amenable to such, to immediately shift to a “work from home” model. While this was the modus operandi for a number of weeks during the general shutdown starting mid-March, I’ve been disappointed to hear that many employers are requiring their employees to be physically present in the workplace again. The Central Bureau of Statistics’ survey of businesses over the course of the pandemic shows just how widespread the return has been: while 50% of high-tech and 32% of finance/insurance industry employees worked from home in late April, the figures nearly halved to 27% and 18% respectively in early July.

The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s May guidelines asked employers to “support and encourage options to telework” and has said that “teleworking is one of the most effective ways employers can help reduce the spread of COVID-19.” Recently, the World Health Organization finally acknowledged that the virus is airborne and indoor settings with reduced ventilation (or recirculated air) can promote spread of the virus.

High-tech companies in the US were among the first to send their employees to work from home, and these actions have contributed to sparing the Bay Area and the Seattle area from even worse outbreaks that have been seen in other parts in the US. Many of the largest companies have announced that they will continue such practices through the end of 2020 or later. Twitter, Facebook and the tech giant Fujitsu, among others, have announced that many of its workers could essentially work from home “forever”.

Of course, there are many people who have no choice but to physically go to work – this includes many essential workers such as healthcare providers, bus drivers, police officers, supermarket clerks, delivery people, and construction workers, as well as a broader list that includes restaurant workers, fitness instructors, store owners, and more. But there are many others for whom showing up in a physical workplace is not necessary in order for the work to get done. People working in industries such as high-tech, business, law, government, and nonprofits can often work from home easily with access to a computer, phone and Internet connection.

Even in some workplaces where some employees have to come in to do their jobs (e.g., cleaning); that is not justification for requiring other employees who can do their job remotely to come to the office. If certain workers such as cafeteria personnel and cleaners are not needed when other people aren’t in the office, employers can consider assigning them to other tasks that are still needed, paying their wages anyway (as Microsoft, Google and some other employers have done for hourly employees), or if there isn’t another option, placing them on temporary unpaid leave. These steps would also alleviate crowding in public transit, which could further reduce the chances of spreading the virus.

The restrictions imposed on government offices in July include allowing no more than 50% of staff to be present in the workplace; with the rest working from home.  For private sector employers there is no official recommendation, but employers don’t need to wait for government directive to encourage their employees to work from home. In fact, there are benefits to the government not making a blanket rule across the market – and allowing employers to take responsibility and contribute their share to the fight against the coronavirus.

There are discussions of another general shutdown if infection rates aren’t contained by end of August. The toll on the economic, physical, emotional, and social health of the country of such a measure is huge. Just as public figures have called on individuals to do their part by wearing masks and social distancing, there too should be a call for every employer who can facilitate work from home to join the “war effort” and do so.

We likely have at least another year of managing with the coronavirus before a vaccine is widely available. Thus, it is to employers’ benefit, and to our country’s larger health and economic benefit, to invest in making the home work set-up effective, immediately. While there may be costs for additional laptops and technology to establish home workstations, employers can save substantial resources in areas such as reduced electricity/water use, less need for office supplies, and reduced office travel expenses. The government has to do its part and take responsibility to ensure that high speed internet infrastructure is ubiquitous across Israel. Not only is this a good way to invest in the country’s infrastructure and long-term labor productivity, it also will provide additional jobs for people who are jobless as a result of the coronavirus.

Encouraging work from home where possible is the most important socially responsible action employers can take to reduce the spread of coronavirus and minimize overall disruption to Israel’s economy. On a larger strategic level, this seems to be the direction the labor market is headed in the future, and we will all benefit by getting on board. Remote working would allow for more work opportunities in the periphery of the country, more flexibility for working parents to young children, reduced commute times and cleaner air for us all.

About the Author
Liora is Chief Financial & Operating Officer at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel. Liora’s responsibilities include finance, operations and HR, alongside researching and writing on current socioeconomic policy issues. Liora has strategy, finance and policy experience with various for-profit and non-profit organizations, including the Berkeley Forum healthcare initiative, Deloitte Consulting, Onyx Pharmaceuticals (now Amgen), the Clinton Foundation and Stanford Financial. Liora holds an MBA and an MPH from UC Berkeley and a BA in International Economics from Georgetown University.
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