After a year of remote working, companies are beginning to bring employees back to work with varying degrees workforce enthusiasm. The Delta variant only complicates workplace reentry.
Companies are now reintroducing remote workers to the office after more than a year of remote work. There are varying levels of workforce enthusiasm. As organizations prepare for the “new norm” office, a potentially more transmissible variant of coronavirus is complicating workplace reentry. How does the Delta variant impact return to work plans in the face of rising U.S. case numbers, stagnant vaccination rates, and many unknowns?
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“While the Delta variant is giving peoplepause when it comes to their comfort level with ‘getting back the new normal’, it remains very individual to each person at this time and does not seem slowing down re-entry plans,” Amy Mosher, chief people officer of isolved, stated.
George Penn, vice president of Gartner’s Gartner HR practice, agreed that the “Delta version” is not causing seismic changes for companies and office exit strategies. However, he explained that some organizations are slowing down or pushing for more data.
Companies have implemented a range of office design strategies and policies in the last year to combat the spread COVID-19 inside their offices. These include plexiglass dividers and air purification systems, new social ditancing guidance, masks and inoculation mandates, and more.
Mosher shared his thoughts with clients during conversations. He said that many of these businesses have redesigned offices to accommodate social distancing during “the early days” of reintegration. He also mentioned how they have increased air filtration, distributed PPE, and implemented additional cleaning strategies.
Mosher stated that it was very likely that businesses have become more relaxed in recent months, but could increase their efforts again.
The CDC has guidelines for mask-wearing in indoor environments. These guidelines have been used to help companies plan office reentry. Future guidance could also change workforce reintegration strategies, as the Delta variant continues to grow in popularity around the world.
Mosher, while noting the WHO’s recent recommendation on indoor masking of vaccinated adults and areas reimplementing indoor-mask mandates because of Delta variant concerns, stated that most employers she spoke to “haven’t changed course” due to the variant “even in regard to indoor masking, return to office strategies or vaccination requirements.”
Many companies are considering or implementing vaccine mandates as they bring back employees to the workplace in the face of a modern plague. LaSalle Network’s March Office Re-Entry Index found that 52% of respondents didn’t intend to mandate vaccinations for employees. This number jumped to 69% in the second index, which was published earlier in the month.
Mosher cited a survey that Mosher conducted earlier in the year and found that 44 percent of respondents would require COVID-19 vaccinations for their employees. Could the rise of a more contagious strain change company attitudes towards implementing vaccine mandates.
It remains a highly sensitive topic. It’s a sensitive time in reintegration, because many of the anxieties we felt over the past year are resurfacing amid stories about surges that mimic patterns which have, in the previous, sparked social–distancing mandates,” Mosher stated.
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Employers are concerned that employees might not like new workplace policies. A tight labor market, employee burnout, and a speculated Great Receipt could all complicate reentry strategies. This could make it more difficult for companies to implement stricter in-house safety protocols.
Mosher, for example, stated that many employers are struggling to re-hire and could “consider incentivizing vaccinations” but believes that most companies will not pursue a mandate that allows employees to make their own health decisions.
Penn stated that many executive teams are engaging in extensive dialogue about the masking and vaccination requirements of the office. “As the new Delta variant expands and stabilizes, we will see organizations make tougher and more difficult decisions about the future co-located workforce.”
Virtual schooling and caregiving are important factors
Many schools have adopted remote learning curricula since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. Remote workers often become caregivers for other members of their households, which can complicate return-to-work strategies. A poll earlier this year found that 27% of remote workers with dependents would require at least one to three months notice in order to “be able” to return to work.
Mosher stated that employees’ work locations will be determined by their personal choice. He also suggested that the “determining factor” could be the return to school for many of their children.
Many schools are planning to open in person this fall. However, there are a number of states that are seeing an increase in cases. The vaccine trials for younger age groups are ongoing and half of the population is still unvaccinated. These factors together could create the conditions for a fourth COVID and an increase in online learning in the months to come.
Mosher stated, “In speaking to employees, there is still a concern regarding the Delta variant’s impact on the upcoming school years, which we know could cause a domino affect for working parents’ need to continue work location flexibility, as well other consequences.”
Flexibility and employee preference are the key words
Both representatives stressed the importance of flexibility in companies’ plans for operational strategies. Mosher expressed hope that executives would continue to allow for sufficient flexibility for their staff and encourage employees to make their own decisions about their work locations.
Penn said, “One important lesson we have learnt from other organizations returning employees in the office is that its imperative leadership have flexible mindsets. Principles and policies are in place to allow rapid adaptation to changing circumstances.”
More than 163,000,000 people in the United States have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19. That’s nearly half the population (49%), says the CDC’s COVID data tracker. However, state-by-state vaccination rates vary significantly. The rise in new COVID-19 mutations poses new challenges and more uncertainties for office planning.
“Should Covid surges continue, business leaders will need to re-evaluate vaccination rules and reintegration plans but employee flexibility – such as a hybrid workforce – could minimize the personal and business impact of all-or-nothing approaches,” Mosher said.
Penn suggested that companies plan their office reentry by allowing for “radical flexibility” in these plans. This could include giving employees and managers more control over how and when they work together.
Penn stated that “radical flexibility is not only good for employees, it is also great to business.”
Penn stated that employees are three times more likely to be “high performers” when a company offers such flexibility. This is based on Gartner research.
Many companies continue to operate in hybrid or fully remote capacities. This shift to remote work has highlighted the importance of IT investments and virtual collaboration tools.
“The pandemic exposed a company’s digital infrastructure. Mosher stated that if a business didn’t invest in virtual collaboration tools or other remote hardware before 2020, most leaders now understand the need after many have had to transition to a remote workforce.
Organizations may need to prepare for a complete reorganization amid public health uncertainty and variants.
“Digitizing [the]Mosher stated that employee experience is essential to not only meet today’s workforce’s expectations but also ensure business continuity in the event of unforeseeable circumstances.”