Data from the Institute for Corporate Productivity’s (i4cp) latest survey, which polled nearly 700 professionals, found the number-one concern among employers related to the surge of the COVID-19 Delta variant is the stress it heaps on the health and well-being of their workforces.
It’s heartening that most employers (67% of those surveyed) recognize the debilitating consequences of operating in perpetual crisis mode—the added strain the variant is having on workforces already fatigued by nearly two years of upheaval topped the list of concerns.
While those who participated in the survey represent a mix of private and public sector industries and organizations worldwide ranging from health care, business & financial services, to retail, tech, manufacturing, government, and more, they share common concerns clearly grounded in how to make sound policy decisions that directly impact their employees.
Now that we have vaccines, the dilemmas the Delta variant presents to organizations vary slightly from the quandaries we faced in the early days of the pandemic—and they are thorny. What to do about employees who refuse vaccinations or mask wearing, even after these actions have been mandated? Will employee turnover spike if policies require employees to work onsite?
Will organizations end up with fractured cultures because some employees work onsite while others work from home? How do leaders reverse course on recent return to the office directives without looking like they’re wishy-washy (or worse—don’t really know what they’re doing)?
The lessons of 2020 are clear, but before the rapid spread of the Delta variant blew up, it seemed that many leaders were eager to plow ahead, get everyone back onsite, and settle into whatever semblance of normalcy most closely aligned with the pre-pandemic past. But moving ahead now that we have pandemic 4.0 to deal with, the most recent past is what ought to inform the way forward.
1. Take care of your people
The importance of checking in with employees to see how they’re doing (not how they are coming along on a current project, but how they are truly feeling) cannot be understated. The early days of the pandemic demonstrated how important checking in on the overall well-being of team members is. But personalizing those check-ins is important too—if you have team members who lean toward being introverted, ask them about their preferred communication styles and cadence—do they prefer a phone call or maybe an email rather than a video chat? Is a quick Teams chat with the entire team once a week all they need, or do they want more structured one-on-one time? Encourage your employees to take care of themselves and to take time off. Even if the Delta variant isn’t spiking in a region where employees are located, it may be in areas where their loved ones live. Don’t assume. Lead with kindness.
2. Communicate with the goal of educating, not lecturing
Reliance on information coming from sources such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (including familiarity with their FAQ resources) can help steer away from discussions that can quickly become emotionally charged and personal. Stay away from opinions and hearsay; stick with objective data and facts.
Now that the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, which will be marketed as Comirnaty, has been approved by the FDA for the prevention of COVID-19 disease in people ages 16 and older, employers may see a decrease in vaccination hesitancy. Employers that were waiting for FDA approval before making policy decisions about vaccine mandates may feel free to move ahead.
But addressing the concerns of employees or customers related to vaccination may continue to be a challenge, since the Pfizer vaccine remains under emergency use authorization (EUA) for children ages 12 to 15 years of age and for the administration of a third dose in certain immunocompromised individuals. And the Moderna vaccine is still awaiting FDA approval. Staying informed and sharing official information rather than debating is the best way to manage through this latest twist in the COVID-19 pandemic.
3. Communicate transparently; if you don’t have an answer, say so
Trust is essential to sustaining a healthy and resilient culture—the importance of this is magnified in times of crisis. Be open with employees, even if it means acknowledging that you don’t have the answer.
If some policy decisions about return to the office, mask, or employee vaccination mandates, flexible scheduling, etc. are still being discussed or need to be revised, be open about it. The situation is fluid, as is the pace and intensity of developments, which seem to happen overnight. Again: if the leaders of your organization are still trying to figure things out, don’t go silent—be candid about this. No one has all the answers because none of us have ever been here before; keeping employees informed about how and why decisions are made as things evolve is a positive approach to dealing with uncertainty.
4. Read the room: Policies and practices should reflect the culture of the organization
If your organization touts its commitment to listening to employees, employee sentiment must be a major consideration in all decision making specific to managing through the pandemic. Listen to employees and when possible, act on what you hear, and ensure that those decisions and actions are clearly tied to your stated values and principles.
Attempting to force an unpopular or rigid policy on a workforce can result in loss of trust in leadership, alienation, and turnover, especially in a time when so many issues are equally overwhelming.
Organizations that have collaborative cultures built on respect and openness will always fare better in any crisis than those that are helmed by control-happy leaders intent on bending the will of employees rather than adjusting to change.
5. Identify and prioritize what needs to be operationalized
Making decisions about mandates and policies is only one step; coming up with a plan of who, what, where, when, and how is critical. So is executing on the plan. Whatever your organization is wrestling with now, and whatever decisions are ahead, be sure that they are thought-through, clearly communicated, and a clear accountability framework is in place.
6. Consider whether, where, and how to redeploy employees who refuse to comply with certain policies
Shortages of workers in key areas and roles is a consideration for some organizations. This reality is driving some to look at redeploying rather than terminating employees who refuse to comply with vaccination, testing, or mask-wearing mandates. For example, are there other areas of the organization where vaccine-hesitant employees can be rotated to? This may be a temporary solution, but one at least worth discussing, especially if crippling staff shortages are a concern.
7. Leverage the lessons of 2020 to achieve greater agility in the months ahead
Last year taught us that we can persevere and be productive in times of disruption. What are the lessons your organization learned that should not be forgotten? How were you more agile than you ever could’ve imagined before the pandemic? If less bureaucracy worked for an organization in 2020, what are the compelling reasons for reverting to that previous model? What is the worst thing that happened when managers were empowered to use discretion regarding work arrangements? What can be gained by dictating policy, rather than enabling employees to seek out and share new solutions? The Delta variant means that organizations will have to continue to wrestle with these questions. But some already have the answers and are mapping out the route for the road ahead informed by where we’ve been.
Lorrie Lykins is i4cp's Vice President of Research