Adjusting to the ‘new abnormal’ | Tar Heels Together

Adjusting to the ‘new abnormal’

 Adjusting to the ‘new abnormal’

A Human Resources information session addressed questions from employees about the July 19 return to campus.

Susan Hudson, The Well, Tuesday, July 6th, 2021

More than 500 participants tuned in June 30 for an hour-long afternoon information session about the University’s July 19 return to work on campus.

Hosted by the Office of Human Resources, the webinar was designed to address the questions and concerns of employees, many of whom have been working mostly remotely for the past 16 months because of the pandemic.

“This last year, I think it’s fair to say, has been a doozy,” acknowledged Becci Menghini, vice chancellor for human resources and equal opportunity and compliance, at the beginning of the session. “After today, we hope that you’ll be a little bit more prepared for what comes next.”

Presenters stressed the need for employees to get vaccinated and register their vaccination, follow updated COVID-19 Community Standards and ask for help when needed.

“Please speak up. You’re a really, really important part of setting the tone for how we return successfully,” Menghini said.

Prevention strategy

The University is using a “layered prevention strategy” to keep employees healthy and safe when working on campus, said Cathy Brennan, executive director of environment, health and safety. The strategy includes on-site vaccinations for employees and their families, indoor mask mandates, enhanced cleaning of buildings and upgraded air filtration.

Because so few employees have registered being vaccinated (27%), the University has set community standards that are slightly more conservative than current CDC guidelines, Brennan said. Vaccination rates are high in Orange County and surrounding areas, so it’s likely that more employees have been vaccinated than have registered, probably at least 50%, she added.

Vaccination registration information is confidential, so co-workers and even supervisors won’t know whether employees have been vaccinated and are not allowed to ask, Menghini said. And while unvaccinated students will be required to participate in the Carolina Together Testing Program on a weekly basis, mandatory testing will not be required for unvaccinated employees. Voluntary, asymptomatic testing will remain available for all students, faculty and staff. Employees with COVID-19 symptoms should get tested by their primary health care provider.

The University won’t be installing plexiglass barriers or providing additional branded personal protective equipment for employees, but it will continue to supply PPE for those employees whose jobs require it.

Employees who feel safer wearing a mask at all times, even outdoors, are welcome to do so, Menghini said. “We want to support and encourage an environment where employees have agency in their feelings of safety.”

Importance of campus work

In questions submitted before the meeting, employees asked why they were being asked to return to campus full-time on the same day and what other options were available.

Menghini emphasized the importance of employees working on campus to the mission of the University. “Our campus is founded on the notion that we are a robust residential community that depends on, and in fact is built on, the free exchange of ideas between faculty, staff and students in a common physical space,” she said. “We are being called to redefine the Carolina experience in the new abnormal.”

The future could include more flexible work arrangements, but the University wants to do more assessments based on adaptations made during the pandemic and on upcoming pilot hybrid programs.

“We are using the fall to assess this new normal and what it would take to get an infrastructure for a larger hybrid campus operation in place,” said Elizabeth Hall, interim associate vice chancellor for equal opportunity and compliance.

Asking for help

Those concerned about the current workplace environment should talk to their supervisor. “Having concerns about the safety of your space is not a reason for a remote work arrangement,” Menghini said, but employees may be able to work in a different location in the same building.

Employees may work out these and other short-term arrangements with their supervisors, but more formal, long-term accommodations should be requested through the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office, Hall said.

Accommodations are based on the health of the employee, not family members, Hall added, and employees will need to submit documentation from their health care provider. She also encouraged employees to take advantage of the resources available for technical services (ITS), counseling (Employee Assistance Program) and conflict resolution, training and professional development (Employee and Management Relations).

Dr. Nadia Charguia, associate professor in the UNC School of Medicine’s psychiatry department and director of the Taking Care of Our Own program, discussed employees’ mental health concerns and gave advice for coping. Cheryl Stout, director of transportation and parking, provided information on commuting and parking. (See separate parking Q&A.)

The recorded webinar will be available online this week on the Office of Human Resources’ Return to Work on Campus website. The presentations are posted on that site as well.

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