Nov 22, 2021
Preparing for the Great Return
As companies across the U.S. grapple with the question of whether, when and how to return to their buildings, one health plan is following one simple principle: putting employees first.
“The safety and well-being of our associates is at the forefront of our work,” said Deborah Varao-Martin, senior director of associate relations, who is leading collaboration across the organization to ensure employees are able to do their jobs remotely or at the offices, are supported professionally, physically, and emotionally, and now are prepared to transition back to the office in 2022. “Healthy employees are essential to allow us to provide exceptional support for our employer customers, members and clinician partners.”
Blue Cross began reopening its buildings to employees on a voluntary basis on October 4, eighteen months after the company all but closed them to protect its people and the broader community from the spread of the deadly virus. A broader return is slated to begin in 2022.
A guiding principle
The company’s plans have been shaped around employee wellbeing – more crucial than ever, as companies across the country grapple with workforce shortages due to the “Great Resignation.”
“Readiness was an important consideration: How do we get our people ready to work from home, and now how do we prepare them for the new normal?” said Varao-Martin.
We did it by listening to our associates with empathy and understanding and striving to meet their needs during an extremely challenging time.
The company has held biweekly webinars featuring the health plan’s mental health clinicians who offer advice and answer questions about caregiving, parenting, depression, isolation, anxiety and other issues. The sessions were so popular, Blue Cross offered the online seminars to its accounts and their employees.
Responding to employee needs, the company provides subsidies for office equipment and for child and elder care services – with enhanced subsidies for in-home care during the first 18 months of the pandemic, and a transition to subsidies for tutoring, babysitting and other services this fall.
Company Connect, a once quarterly live broadcast with CEO Andrew Dreyfus, became a monthly event in which associates get the latest news on the pandemic, business performance, and plenty of encouragement. And the company’s intranet became home to comprehensive resources on effective remote and hybrid working, as well as COVID testing and vaccination.
Plan to change the plan
Flexibility and constant reassessment of the needs of the organization and its employees has been critical, according to Jim Linehan, VP of budget, procurement, and real estate at Blue Cross. He has been tasked with ensuring the company’s facilities are ready for associates.
“We began planning for returning to our buildings as soon as we sent everyone home,” Linehan recalled. “Our first target date was April 2020. At least three other dates for a return were set and then lifted as we learned we could operate at a high level virtually, and the pandemic continued unabated.”
Linehan and his team made physical changes to Blue Cross buildings to support associate health and wellbeing. Blue Cross upgraded air filtration in its HVAC systems, introduced weekly electro-static cleaning of common areas, increased the tempo of cleaning and disinfecting during the day, and made available hand sanitizer stations and disinfecting wipes, as well as redesigning workspaces to ensure at least seven feet of distance between employees even on floors filled with cubicles.
The company also implemented technology to conduct health assessments and temperature screenings.
We follow a number of key metrics very closely. Those are the COVID positivity rates, the hospital admission rates, death rates, and the vaccination rate.
- said Sandhya Rao, MD, and chief medical officer for the company
"Given what we are seeing, we feel really confident about a broader reopening in 2022," Rao said. "That said, COVID does not stand still. Things change frequently and so we will continue to watch these numbers diligently.”
Like many companies nationwide, Blue Cross requires employees and visitors to be vaccinated to enter the company’s buildings, with accommodations available for those with medical or religious issues.
Masks are currently mandated, as is daily health verification via an app, measures that may change with the public health environment.
The company’s aim is a safe, low-stress reentry for all employees, its clinical leaders say.
“You have to manage to the most vulnerable in your employee population, like those with compromised immune systems,” said Dr. Ashley Yeats, VP of medical operations. “And our associates aren’t just employees. They’re spouses and parents, and caregivers. We want to be responsive and mindful of that.”
The pandemic’s legacy
David McDonald can’t wait to get back to work in Blue Cross’ Hingham office building.
“I’m most excited to be working next to real people again,” said the pharmacy operations supervisor. “It’s just not the same meeting via Teams — you don’t see faces a lot of times, just someone’s avatar.”
It will be a very different workplace he and his colleagues will return to. Like a lot of companies, Blue Cross learned that it could operate effectively with the majority of its people working from home, and is prioritizing flexibility for its employees.
Fifty-one percent of Blue Cross’ more than 3,600 employees are choosing to be e-workers once the company returns, reporting to one of the company’s four offices about once a month, up from about 30% pre-pandemic. Another 32% are choosing to be mobile workers, reporting to the office 1 to 3 days a week.
Blue Cross is not alone in advancing what could be a seismic shift in the way workplaces function. A recent McKinsey and Company report for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on the future of work found 32% of workers in the state could shift to working remotely one to three days a week.
The company has adopted other new practices as well to ensure an inclusive and healthy environment. Employees are encouraged to turn their cameras on when they are in hybrid meetings so all participants feel included. The company’s sick days are now “wellness days” that can be taken for mental health as well as physical illness.
As the new year approaches, “The key message to employees is, ‘You are on this journey with us, and this is not something that just happens to you,” Varao-Martin said.
We are learning to be agile, we are listening to your ideas, your thoughts, and your concerns.