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As summer 2021 began, government officials and business leaders were optimistic. COVID-19 vaccinations were on the rise and infections were declining. There was a collective feeling we had put the pandemic behind us. Businesses were eager to call employees back to the office and announced their return-to-work plans. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 Delta variant has caused a new surge of infections and led many employers to delay those office reopening plans.

Workers have a range of feelings about the pandemic and return-to-work plans. Some employees have been vocal about their desire to continue working from home but others would like to return to the office. According to a recent Morning Consult poll, 31% want to work from home full-time; 45% would like to work in the office full-time; and 24% would like to split time between home and office

Many employers recognize the complexity of the situation. While many employees aren’t eager to return to an isolation bubble again, recent research suggests that more workers (both vaccinated and unvaccinated) are growing fearful of the Delta variant. Several sources indicate about 9 million Americans are hesitant to return to work at all despite the wide availability of employment opportunities. 

With fear and uncertainty on the rise again, what should employers do? In this article, we’ll discuss some strategies your business can use to minimize the spread of the Delta variant in your workplace, help employees feel safe, and support your workers’ desire to feel appreciated by your organization. 

The current state of COVID-19 and vaccines

Following initial trials, both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were shown to be more than 90% effective against COVID-19. However, as Delta spread, one key study found that vaccine effectiveness fell to 66%. As Delta surged over the summer, it became clear that it was causing breakthrough infections at higher rates than other forms of the virus and scientists concluded that vaccinated people infected with Delta could transmit the virus. The findings led to the CDC’s decision to encourage masking for all, especially in areas with high rates of transmission.

Studies are also showing that protection against COVID-19 decreases over time. All of these findings led the CDC to recommend that Americans receive a third dose, or booster shot, to maximize protection and prolong durability. Booster shots will be available this fall for people who received the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine; boosters should be given eight months after the second dose. Guidance for those who received the Johnson & Johnson shot has not been issued yet. 

Much ado about mandates: Is it better to recommend or require masks and vaccines?

When the vaccines were under emergency use authorization (EUA), many employers were reluctant to issue vaccine mandates for employees. At first, some businesses offered cash incentives and time-off for employees choosing to get vaccinated. However, a few dozen businesses including Microsoft, Tyson Foods, and Walt Disney announced vaccine requirements after the Biden administration mandated vaccinations for federal employees in July. 

With the announcement of full FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine on August 23, 2021, more employers are expected to shift from simply encouraging vaccination to requiring them. Immediately after the FDA gave its full approval, New York City announced mandates for its public-school teachers and staff and the Pentagon will require vaccination for military service members.  

Even prior to the Pfizer approval, the number of employers considering a vaccine mandate was on the rise. According to a survey by Littler Mendelson, 46% of employers surveyed in August were considering a vaccine mandate for employees. Additionally, there is growing confidence that mandates are permitted by the law as evidenced in a recent case where the courts ruled that Houston Methodist hospital acted reasonably when requiring the vaccine and firing workers who refused. 

Practical strategies for a safe return to the office

In addition to masks and vaccines, there is much more employers can do to ensure their employees feel valued and appreciated. Business leaders should look for ways to foster connection as well as continue to normalize conversations about mental health, burnout, and stress

The Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) also recommends using these strategies to keep workers safe:

  • Vaccinations and testing requirements. Vaccines have proven to be the best way to prevent serious illness, hospitalization, and death. If you do have unvaccinated employees on your staff, consider how you will handle regular COVID-19 testing—will it be weekly or bi-weekly? Will you offer testing on-site or require employees to provide proof of negative test performed elsewhere?

  • Local transmission levels. Consider transmission levels and rates in your region before making your return-to-office decision.

  •  Maintain safe office practices. When employees do return to your office space, be sure to follow current CDC social distancing and masking guidelines. It’s also good to ensure good building ventilation to reduce exposure.

  • Communicate with employees frequently. Keep employees up-to-date with your expectations on testing, intervention procedures like cleaning and temperature screening, and travel. Find out what your employees want and what they need to feel safe.

  • Support employee mental health. Be sure to focus on your employee’s wellbeing and morale and provide resources that help them stay calm and productive. 

Support a safe return to the workplace

When your employees return to the office, there’s no question that the workplace will look very
different than it did before the pandemic. With consistent communication, compassion, and stability, you can effectively manage employee concerns and lead your workforce back to a healthy, safe work environment. Be sure to keep your employees informed and communicate changes openly. Show compassion for their situation and maintain a healthy, safe work environment through policies that protect your workers. Additionally, provide support for employee wellbeing and find ways to help them connect and minimize stress. 

If you need help developing your plans to return to the workplace, visit Asure’s COVID-19 Resource Center for webinars, articles, best practices, legal updates, and more.

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