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5 questions to ask before you revise your return-to-work policies

Elizabeth Swiker and Brian Roy
Elizabeth Swiker is senior vice president of employee engagement at Edelman. Brian Roy is senior vice president of health at Edelman.

For employees and employers eager to leave remote work behind and reclaim the sense of normalcy that has gone missing in their professional lives, September 2021 has long been the light at the end of the tunnel. Now, the Delta variant threatens to delay that return even further.

For the business leaders we advise daily in our roles at Edelman, it’s an all-too-familiar predicament: Stay the course or change course–yet again.

Related: How fast is HR revising safety measures as Delta cases rise?

To be clear, this is a nuanced issue, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Each company has a different geographical footprint with a unique talent base and a distinctive value, and all these factors can and should impact your course of action. But there are a few paradigms that work for framing the problem.

How To Think About the Problem

You won’t find the answers you’re looking for by painting these plans with a broad brush, but a few simple considerations—grounded in building employee and customer trust—can point companies and their leaders in the right direction during this newest phase:

  • What do your employees say? Do you understand your employees’ evolving sentiment on these issues? A consistent tempo of check-ins via surveys, focus groups and interviews will help you maintain a pulse on their fears, desires and needs. You can adjust your methods by taking stock of the feedback mediums that elicit the greatest participation and engagement.
    • Keep in mind that an outbreak is more likely if employees are adamantly opposed to a specific mandate or requirement but remain unvaccinated and continue to work in person. This not only poses a risk to public health but also to the success and reputation of your business.
  • Masks, vaccines or both? Companies have differed in their adoption of mandates and requirements. While Tyson Foods and Microsoft are among the latest to require vaccinations, the three major U.S. automakers are returning to a mask mandate in factories rather than issuing a vaccination mandate prior to full FDA authorization. Some are requiring that employees both be vaccinated for on-site work and mask while on-site. How you activate on this should hinge on the sentiment of your employees and the guidance of state, local and industry leaders. Remember that you also have options within each category:
    • Mandate example: An employee cannot stay on the job without wearing a mask and/or being vaccinated. It is a condition of employment.
    • Conditional Requirement example: All on-site employees must be vaccinated. But if an employee is not vaccinated, they may stay on the job if they get tested regularly or work entirely from home.
  • Will you use carrots or sticks? Encouraging and requiring are two different things, but in most cases, you’ll need to do both. Companies need to strike the right balance between incentivizing vaccinations with positive reinforcement (e.g., an extra day off, cash payments), negative reinforcement (e.g., restricting attendance for in-person events or at the job site, reserving the night shift for non-vaccinated), and diligence around the health of workers once the policy is set (e.g. offering a supply of at-home tests at a reduced cost, revisiting sick leave policies to ensure they are still leading-edge, communicating “outbreaks” transparently).
  • What causes hesitancy? For your employees who are hesitant to get vaccinated, it’s critical to get to the root of those feelings and work to understand why. Whether its distrust of government, previous negative health care experiences, misinformation or family pressure, it’s your job to hear those concerns while offering vaccine information and education that leads with existing science and data. You should also use communications tools and trusted spokespeople who are representative of the audiences you are trying to reach.
    • Word of mouth can be the most effective tool for initiating behavior changes, so consider partnering with employee resource groups, unions or community leaders that can help clear up misconceptions and encourage vaccinations among those who are hesitant.
  • What industry are you in? If you have fewer essential workers, you likely have more flexibility to adjust your return-to-office timeline (e.g., push from September to October or early next year), model (e.g., commit to a hybrid framework, offer a permanent remote option), and any accompanying mandates (e.g., vaccination, mask usage, social distancing, frequent testing). It’s also important to be cognizant of any differing requirements within a single company or organization. For example, is your corporate team required to be vaccinated, but not your front-line workforce? Will this cause concerns or consternation down the road? Be sure to consider the talent war taking place and the potential business impact.

The bottom line: Use this moment to reflect on your priorities, reassess your options and recommit to your values to ensure you are making the best decision for all those involved.

Communicating Your Decision

Once you’ve decided what you’ll be communicating, how you communicate it becomes equally important. We know from Edelman’s extensive research on trust that employer communications is viewed as the most credible source of information about COVID-19. That means employers have an incredible responsibility to deliver these updates efficiently and effectively. To do so, consider the following:

  • What is your “why”? If you’re mandating a return to the office this fall, remember that your employees are likely to be more fearful than usual—in addition to the post-pandemic anxiety and post-traumatic stress many are already feeling. It’s important to keep in mind the “why” behind any return to in-person work, showcasing to your employees that you are keeping their best interests in mind as you change policies. From a standpoint of building and maintaining the trust of employees—increasingly, your most crucial stakeholders—this cannot be overlooked.
  • How will you frame your messaging? Employees will have questions about any new policy announcement, and it is essential that leadership is equipped with a clear, concise and honest message as to why additional or alternative steps are being taken.
  • How will you get the word out? Our research shows that multiple mediums are best on this topic. Once you know the decisions you’re making, share information readily and regularly with employees through internal communications, company-wide town halls, and one-on-one conversations with team members. Arm direct managers with talking points and encourage direct conversations between your leadership bench and their direct reports.
  • How do you prepare for employee, consumer, and other stakeholders’ reactions? With the potential for protests or other adverse reactions — no matter what course you decide — it’s important to be ready with scenario plans containing associated messaging and response plans based on your business. Spend time thinking through all potential outcomes and what employee reactions may look like. Be sure to bring in relevant stakeholders, including public health experts, at the beginning of your scenario planning process.

The bottom line: The how is, in some ways, as important as the what. By nailing your internal messaging cadence, you’ll limit confusion and build opportunities for more trust between leadership and employees during this trying and tumultuous time.