One of the most challenging aspects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is that there is no known end date. Even with multiple vaccines now approved, cities nationwide are bracing for another wave of COVID-19 as infection rates continue to rise.

At City Harvest, New York City’s largest food rescue organization, our approach to risk management has been an “always on” approach. We’ve had to pivot our operations like never before to manage, train and motivate hundreds of employees from a distance while responding around the clock to unprecedented levels of need for emergency food.

As the organization’s chief human resources (HR) officer, I have witnessed first hand how important it is to adapt swiftly to new operations and management needs. With about 110 of our employees working virtually and the other 100 working on site at our warehouse and throughout the five boroughs delivering food, we’ve learned how to manage and train employees efficiently while also remembering to practice empathy during this crisis.

Embrace Change

It is normal for leaders to feel uncertain about how to inspire confidence in their employees while navigating the rising cases of COVID-19. Regularly updating a company’s business continuity plans helps ease worries and reassure employees during these uncertain times. City Harvest’s HR team has developed new employee resources to help individuals manage their health and work/life balance now and in the months to come.

Our team has also had to rethink entire concepts of plans, not only by enhancing our business operations but by also creating an overall long-term model that is practical and functional. Rather than having a one-time solution for COVID-19, it is more efficient to plan a sustainable and scalable way to help your workplace adapt to adjustments as employees return to offices or on-site locations when necessary.

Prepare a Response Plan

Having a response plan ready is critical for companies to test protocols and prepare for a new wave of the pandemic. Companies should implement a rotating schedule that minimizes density in offices or on-site work locations. At City Harvest, we’ve reconstructed our warehouse so that our employees have ample space, becoming creative by tearing down and putting up walls and creating outdoor spaces. We have a sign-up process for employees who wish to work from the administrative office, and the process is monitored carefully to ensure the number of people in the office on any given day is limited and everyone working has enough space.

At both of our locations, we enacted a mandatory health screening questionnaire that also includes temperature checks. Each site is also equipped with safety signage and directions as well as enhanced hygiene procedures, including on-site COVID-19 testing.

Emphasize Company Culture

You should still prioritize company culture, even if the majority of your workforce is remote. Executing the necessary support structures for employees who struggle during these transitions is critical to retain employees and keep them proactive and engaged.

We will see employee burnout become worse as the pandemic progresses. Encouraging employees to prioritize self-care and ask for support will be a critical component to your overall success. Leveraging digital tools such as webinars and virtual social activities to foster regular dialogue can help connect and destress employees and align priorities and concerns.

At City Harvest, we are making self-care a priority for our employees. We hold weekly meditation forums as well as one-off wellness events. Amid last year’s Black Lives Matter protests and presidential election, we also created spaces for employees to discuss these critical issues and events and regularly shared information on topics like how to vote in New York City. We’ve also gone beyond the traditional employee assistance program (EAP) and partnered with an online counseling provider to offer free weekly counseling to all of our staff.

Work-from-home Priorities

Making sure your organization has a clear work-from-home policy will ensure all staff members are supported in implementing remote work arrangements. Consider sending internal emails or hosting company calls regularly to deliver critical information to your entire staff.

There are several questions that a work-from-home policy can address, but some of the most important questions to consider are which employees need to work from home and what hours they are expected to keep. Identifying how remote employees can collaborate and communicate will be a key factor in your company’s long-term success.

Organizations may also need to consider providing employees with additional equipment and supplies or a stipend for them if they need to work remotely for an extended period of time. When City Harvest decided to revamp training styles around the pandemic, we wanted to make sure work-from-home equipment was accessible to all employees. We understand each employee is different, and we adapted our virtual programs to ensure that they work for everyone.

While the pandemic has forced a shift in our lives — both professionally and personally — we must remember the importance of flexibility, communication and empathy. As we start another year filled with uncertainty, let’s remain hopeful and trusting of our teams and the role we play within them.