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Leon Kaye headshot

Returning to the Office During COVID-19 Isn’t an Epic Idea, Say These Employees

This company told its workforce to return to the office by late September, but fears over COVID-19 led to a swift and fierce reaction from its employees.
By Leon Kaye

Epic Systems is a privately-held company that provides electronic medical records software to the healthcare sector. As Epic has no mandate to report its financials publicly, let’s not assume how it’s currently performing; however, it’s safe to believe that the $3 billion healthcare tech company employing about 9,000 people is holding its own during the COVID-19 era. Epic’s success since its founding over 40 years ago has certainly allowed it to spend some serious coin on a beautifully designed headquarters that puts most pallid office parks to shame.

Earlier this month, the Wisconsin-based company announced that it would require its entire workforce to return to the office by September 21. Employees with a higher health risk have until November to forgo working from home.

Come back to the Epic office, management said

The irony of a company linked to the healthcare industry telling its workforce to return to the office wasn’t lost on many employees, and doubts over the wisdom of going back during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis quickly accelerated.

“Employee dissatisfaction has manifested in more than complaints,” wrote Alice Herman, a journalist based in the Madison area. “It has also cracked open an opportunity for collective action in the Madison area’s biggest, most ostentatiously anti-labor private employer.”

An internal survey leaked to CBS News found that employee concerns were not merely those of the noisy few, but rather reflected hundreds of employees who worried about the risk of returning to the company’s main campus when COVID-19 still looms as a public health threat.

Epic’s leaders said reopening the campus was important for both company culture and being able to serve its customers. “The fact is we can’t do what we do without being together at the absolute highest level,” Sverre Roang, the company’s chief administrative officer, told Anna Werner of CBS News.

Employees, however, said not so fast

When asked about the results of an employee survey that described Epic’s plans as “wildly irresponsible,” a “disaster,” “rushed,” “unnecessary” and even “shameful,” Roang claimed he did not recall such descriptions — and Werner, to her credit, kept pressing him, as she wasn’t having it; and neither were many of the company’s employees.

The company insisted it was taking whatever measures possible to boost safety at its campus – one that is whimsical in design, from the “Intergalactic Headquarters” sign greeting visitors at the entrance to the various design themes across the offices that give off a theme park vibe.

But Epic employees weren’t shy about speaking to the local media to share their feelings about returning to the office – especially in the greater Madison and Dane County area, which is currently having its own struggles containing the virus. Data also suggest 40 percent of Wisconsin’s COVID-19 cases can be traced to a workplace, adding even more urgency. Epic reportedly had 4,000 employees who continued to work at its suburban Madison campus. That critical mass was on the mind of more than a few employees, one of whom told Werner, “I don’t want us to be the next epicenter of the next breakout.”

It’s not a collaboration-versus-COVID-19 question, say public health experts

Public health experts have questioned any rushed return to the office by Epic or any company for that matter. “Just because you can go back into the office, doesn’t mean you should go back into the office,” Dr. Anne Rimoin, an epidemiology professor at UCLA, told CBS News. “To forfeit safety for the idea of having ‘collaborative moments’ is something I can’t agree with.”

Tech companies including Google and Workday have certainly taken public health officials’ concerns, and that of their employees, to heart as they have either delayed a return to the office until next year — or, in the case of Twitter, deciding to make work-from-home policies indefinite.

Over the last several days, Epic’s executive team continued to backtrack on its original directive. On Saturday, the company reportedly sent an email saying employees would not have to return to the office if they felt uncomfortable in such an environment.

By Monday, it was widely reported that Epic has backed off its complete reopening plans for the time being. The saga offers lessons to companies that seek a return to the office, but are unsure how to communicate such a plan.

The notion “employee engagement” is now undergoing a transformation, but the timeless lessons of how to engage employees remain fundamentally the same. Trust them; listen to them; work with them; assume nothing.

The alternative risks a blot on a company’s reputation while its executives and communications team knot themselves into a pretzel explaining the company’s point of view. And as we all have learned, if one side is forced into a position of explaining, the truth is: That side loses.

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Image credit: Pixabay

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye