Return to Office and the Delta Variant: Considerations for Employers

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Employers are navigating murky waters as they outline return-to-office plans from vaccine mandates to the spread of emerging COVID-19 virus strains, 

Last month, the FDA approved the Pfizer vaccine, making it the first COVID-19 vaccine to gain full approval. However, despite the availability of vaccines in the U.S., vaccination rates have decreased over the past few months. The number of cases has also grown, with the delta variant now accounting for 93% of all cases in the country.

The surge in breakthrough cases has prompted employers to take strict measures to protect employees, customers, and communities. For some, this means requiring that all employees and, in some cases, visitors to the office are vaccinated. However, other companies such as Google and Amazon have gone the opposite route, pushing their reopening dates to January.

Amid changing plans, employers are also dealing with a workforce with new needs and expectations. In Prudential’s Pulse of the American Worker Survey, 42% of employees who currently work remotely say they are willing to switch jobs if their employer does not continue to offer the remote work option. Another 26% plan to look for a new job when the pandemic subsides. 

Additionally, after over 18 months of uncertainty, many employers and employees are still split on the best plans of action for companies. Changing information means leaders must be agile to ensure policies are inclusive and in line with the latest health guidelines. 

Responding to Changing Mandates

As cases rise, the increase in transmissibility is a major concern for employers, notes epidemiologist Dr. Ben Lopman. Kindred recently hosted an Expert Hour session with Dr. Lopman and Kindred member and human resources executive Angela Cheng-Cimini.

They noted that masking indoors makes sense because of the high levels of transmission; however, companies considering mask mandates may face pushback from employees who would prefer to remain remote. 

For companies considering mask or vaccine mandates for employees, some important considerations include:

  1. Follow public health guidelines. In outlining plans for the return to the office, leaders must consider city, state, and federal regulations as well as the needs of their employees. In July, the CDC changed its guidance to recommend that fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors in areas with high transmission rates. To help determine whether masking indoors should be required, Dr. Lopman recommends looking at the cases per population in the company’s county over a two-week period.
  2. Create nonverbal cues for employees to communicate their comfort level. In some workplaces, employees may have the option to remove masks in smaller group settings. However, Cheng-Cimini notes that there may be power dynamics at play that may make some feel uneasy expressing their discomfort with unmasking. She recommends providing nonverbal cues such as color-coded wristbands to help signal each individual’s comfort level.
  3. Consider your company culture. The decision on whether or not to mandate vaccinations, require indoor masking, or return to the office at all should depend on the culture leaders are building within the organization. For instance, in workplaces where employees thrive while working remotely, it may make sense to delay the return to the office for the time being. However, if a team works better in person, a hybrid environment may work better for productivity and employee engagement.
  4. Think long-term. As companies adapt to changing information in the short term, experts recommend they consider how their policies will scale over time. Dr. Lopman notes that the virus likely won’t disappear entirely, which makes resurgences possible. “Think about how the things we’re doing now will be sustainable the next time there’s a surge,” he advises.
  5. Communicate with empathy. There are multiple reasons why individuals may choose not to get vaccinated. It is important to understand those reasons and answer the different types of employee concerns. In the event that vaccinations are mandatory, identify how the company will support employees through the process. Leaders should also ensure that messages to employees are supportive and aligned with the organization’s values.

Deciding the best course of action for the company and employees is a challenge for leaders during uncertain and unprecedented times. Regardless of the measures a company chooses, Cheng-Cimini emphasizes that leaders must ensure that all employees feel heard, regardless of personal inclinations.

Effectively managing employee expectations will take including employees in decision making, actively communicating new changes and adjustments, and ensuring that proper protocols are followed to create safe environments.

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Urey Onuoha

Published on September 03, 2021