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Pulse of the U.S. workforce: Employers blindsided by coronavirus

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Employers are convinced the coronavirus crisis has irrevocably changed the U.S. workforce — and they’re scrambling to keep up.

“Employees that are not familiar with working remotely now have to,” one respondent to the survey says. “A significant number of our sales force already worked remotely, so that required no change for them, but for our in-house people, we are seeing a learning curve. The impact on our customers and our bottom line is still TBD.”

Arizent, the parent of Employee Benefit News and Employee Benefit Adviser, conducted a survey with professionals in the financial services, wealth management and professional services sectors on March 19 and 20 to gauge their thoughts on how the epidemic is affecting their operations. Around 300 working professionals responded to the survey; 76% of them believe the coronavirus is going to have an adverse impact on their businesses, and more than half are creating plans to tackle the workplace challenges.

About eight out of 10 employers reported in the survey that employees were adapting well to the organizational response to the epidemic. The most common policies were restrictions on business travel, adopting remote work policies and investing in technology to support remote work. But some employers found it difficult to leave the office.

“Not surprisingly, COVID-19 is having a significant impact on businesses across all sectors, giving rise to distributed workforces or requiring changes in how work gets done for businesses that can't work remotely, driving changes in the customer experience and in some cases negatively impacting sales or revenue,” says Janet King, vice president of research at Arizent.

The challenges of remote work

Government calls to shelter in place are forcing all nonessential businesses to either cease operations, or work remotely. But many employers weren’t ready to accommodate a remote workforce.

Common problems with remote work reported across industries included not being able to have face-to-face meetings with clients, and difficulty communicating with their team because “email and phone are just not the same as in person.” These are all issues that can be addressed with video conferencing and instant messaging software; so it comes as no surprise that 47% of employers reported they were investing in technology to accommodate remote work.

“Certainly, long term this will likely cause businesses to reprioritize investments needed in mobile and digital tools to best serve both employees and customers in an environment requiring less direct human interaction,” King says.

It appears the investment in new technologies won’t go to waste: 46% of employers say their remote work policies are going to be altered permanently by the epidemic. And 34% of them say they’re going to rethink their approach to in-person meetings and events, presumably to allow technology to facilitate these traditional business operations. Employers who invested in technology for remote work were better equipped to handle the epidemic.

“Our office went paperless a year and a half ago and have already used laptops and cloud-based software for tax preparation about nine years ago,” said a survey taker in the professional services industry. “Making the transition to paperless has allowed us to not miss a beat in our office. We made the decision … to close our physical office, but allow clients to drop through the door mail slot their documents if desired. All staff work from home [beginning] March 12 with only a three-hour notice.”

But not all industries are capable of transitioning to remote work. Medical workers are an obvious example, but survey takers reported that healthcare office and administration staff are unable to work from home as well.

“Employees [are] wanting to self-isolate, [but] we are part of healthcare operations and we depend on our employees to be here to help our patients,” said a survey taker in the healthcare sector. “We don't have the capability to allow call center employees to work remote.”

Tax professionals and financial advisers also reported difficulty with remote work, but not necessarily because they lacked the technology to communicate with staff. The problem reflected more of a generational divide; survey respondents reported older workers were struggling to adopt new technology and remote work practices. Remote work was even more challenging when a large portion of their clients are elderly.

“Elderly clients cannot or will not come in to drop off or pick up their taxes,” another survey respondent says. “We normally go into the nursing homes to gather the information and visit with our clients, and we cannot do that. Their families are not allowed inside either, so we cannot get the necessary documents.”

Respondents from across all industries also reported employees were having difficulties balancing their personal lives with remote work because “employees are less available due to childcare concerns and need to homeschool children,” a respondent said. Schools and daycare facilities are closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, so children are sheltering in place with their parents. If both parents work, supervising their children’s activities can be a balancing act.

“They are trying to work from home, but with kids also having to do homework online, they aren't getting much accomplished,” said a professional services respondent.

Employees who are the primary caregiver for another adult face the same challenges as those with children. In both situations, when there isn’t another adult to share the responsibility with, employers reported they considered having these employees work part-time, or with flexible hours.

Looking forward

The sectors anticipating the hardest hits to their revenue are wealth management (88%), financial services (85%) and fintech (80%). Professional services and other miscellaneous industries anticipate losses, too: 69% and 85%, respectively.

But despite employers’ pessimism over the coronavirus’ long-term impact on the economy, only a handful plan to reduce compensation (12%) or benefits (4%) and lay off employees (15%). In fact, some employers are using the epidemic as an opportunity to expand their benefit offerings and 19% of employers are planning to extend paid sick leave to hourly employees. The financial services sector is leading the way on this initiative; 41% of these employers indicated they were planning to offer paid sick leave to hourly workers.

“Many businesses may be surprised at the agility with which so many were seemingly able to respond to this crisis to rethink how they meet their employee and customer needs at this unprecedented moment in time,” King says. “Certainly things are continuing to change rapidly, and the response has not come without challenges.”

To read the full survey results, visit our sister publication American Banker (subscription required).

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