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Aug. 8, 2020, 8:39 a.m. EDT

Why my company’s 7,000 employees won’t rush back to the office even when the coronavirus pandemic is under control

Without coordinated national policy to address COVID-19, businesses must fill the leadership void

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By Sanjiv Das

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When it became clear the U.S. would face the coronavirus pandemic, we acted swiftly at Caliber Home Loans, the mortgage lender I lead. Last March we instituted work from home measures so that our employees could operate safely at home, and just over 98% of our workforce is still teleworking. Even though Dallas, where our headquarters is located, wasn’t the epicenter of the initial outbreak, we didn’t want to take any chances. With a workforce of more than 7,000 across the U.S., we took a national view of the situation and adopted appropriate policies. Although we’re all hopeful to be able to meet our colleagues in person again soon, we’re still cautious about resuming office work. Here’s what we’re doing:  

1. Safety comes first: Nothing is more important than the health and safety of employees. I begin our leadership meetings by asking whether our employees or their families have been affected by the virus. It’s incumbent upon leaders of all organizations to put the well-being of their people first. This is the time to build trust with colleagues. In fact,  some 41% of U.S. workers  feel more positive about their companies because of their organization’s response to the outbreak, whereas 23% feel less positive.

2. Patience saves lives: During the spring and early summer of 2020, the epicenters of the outbreak were urban areas including New York City, Detroit and Los Angeles. Many of our Dallas-based employees were curious about when we would return to our office there. We waited to see how the situation would evolve. We frequently consulted  CDC guidelines  and analyzed the trends of infections around the country. We opted to wait, and I’m glad that we did.  Texas is now experiencing a surge  of cases and hospitalizations, as are many other places where our employees live.

3. Why we created an emergency team: To respond to the crisis, we appointed a cross-functional team to determine our response to the pandemic. The team included members from human resources, communications, operations and technology, among other groups. It was important for us to convene such a committee so that we could establish a common operating picture across the firm and increase situational awareness for everyone. We spoke with a unified voice about how we were handling the crisis.

A nationwide survey found that  almost half of U.S. workers  wanted more information about their company’s plans to return to work, yet few had actually received any guidance. While  29% of employees  want to hear from CEOs about a company’s response to the pandemic, some  46% want to hear from a direct manager  or team leader. Therefore, our chief human resources officer hosts recurring “leader calls” with managers across the firm in which we give critical updates on how we were responding to the pandemic as a firm.

Read: Dr. Fauci tells MarketWatch: I would not get on a plane or eat inside a restaurant

4. Have an action plan: Our firm has developed an action plan regarding how employees will eventually return to the office. But we haven’t implemented it because we are waiting for the public health situation to improve. Our plan is a phased approach in which certain employees will be able to return to their offices on a staggered basis. We have established protocols regarding physical distancing, appropriate sanitization measures, commuting and teleworking. Our cross-functional team is constantly refining the action plan based on changing events and government guidelines. And our leadership team regularly considers whether to put the action plan into motion. As of now, we have chosen to wait and be prudent.

While our organization was among the first in our industry to implement working from home, we’re comfortable being one of the last in welcoming our employees back to the office, so long as it can be done in a healthy and safe way.   

Sanjiv Das is CEO of Caliber Home Loans. Previously, he was CEO of CitiMortgage during and after the Great Financial Crisis.

More: Mortgage applications for suburban homes are surging as buyers try to escape the coronavirus pandemic

Plus: Work from home is here to stay. Here’s what it means for retail stocks

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