How to Manage Back-to-Work Policies Amid Pandemic Uncertainty

Just when many employers were beginning to see the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, the delta variant emerged and derailed back-to-work plans.
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Pandemic Uncertainty

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Just when many employers were beginning to see the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, the delta variant emerged and derailed back-to-work plans. Some who had been planning to bring employees back into the office have delayed those plans. Some who had loosened masking rules tightened them up again. And some are starting to think that changes they’ve made in work policies since early 2020 should become permanent. 

While it’s important for companies to create policies that work for their operations and their employees, there’s no simple approach that works for every company. And there’s always a chance that the approach they adopt will be wrong. So, how should your business think about back-to-work policies amid so much uncertainty? 

Here we’ll explore some of the complex factors involved, including keeping team members safe, employee comfort with various scenarios, creating policies that can work now and into an unknown future, and considering when temporary arrangements should become permanent. 

NOTE: The information offered here is based on recommendations from a variety of sources and does not constitute legal or medical advice. Before making decisions, readers should always check with relevant authorities, including the CDC, for the latest guidance. 

Put Safety First

The primary consideration for work during the COVID-19 pandemic is and always has been “safety first.” Employers must do what is necessary to prevent workers from spreading the disease. However, this consideration must be balanced with others, such as legal issues, the willingness of team members to comply, and their ability to do their jobs. 

Here are a few policies to take into account: 

  • Mask up. Sure, it’s hard to feel like you’re going back to the time before vaccines were available and masks were one of the few ways to prevent virus spread. But requiring masks regardless of vaccination status is a good way to reduce infection rates, even if you don’t do anything else. 
  • Practice social distancing. Like masking, social distancing is a way to reduce the spread of the virus without having to check everyone’s vaccination status.
  • Check for symptoms. Yet another holdover from 2020, checking for virus symptoms is a good way to keep infected people from spreading disease. You can check temperatures and ask about other symptoms. Anyone who has a fever or reports symptoms should work from home and quarantine. 
  • Request quarantines. Request that anyone who has been sick with COVID-19, has symptoms, or who has been exposed to the virus quarantine for 14 days before returning to the office. 
  • Require vaccines. Having all employees vaccinated is the best way to keep everyone working together in an office safe and healthy. If a vaccine mandate seems too severe, consider incentivizing team members with gift cards, time off, and other perks. 
  • Implement structural changes. If you haven’t already, consider redesigning the office to promote social distancing, increasing air filtration and ventilation, installing sanitation stations, and boosting cleaning practices. 
  • Continue work from home arrangements. If you don’t want to require vaccinations and work from home arrangements have been going well during the pandemic, you can keep them in place.  

Determine Employee Comfort

Any of the above suggestions may be difficult to implement if employees are uncomfortable with them. For example, some people may still feel very wary about being around others no matter what measures are in place. These team members may want to continue working from home. Before making decisions about major changes, try to determine employees’ comfort zones. 

Create a platform for collecting employee feedback and a means for analyzing it. Then plan some follow-up discussions to arrive at the best decision. Be sure to communicate throughout the process to explain the process and the desired outcome. Chances are some people won’t agree with every decision. Make leaders and HR professionals available to manage their concerns. 

Make Flexible Policies

Because the situation is changing so rapidly, any new policies you implement should include considerations for shifting conditions. For example, if you’re bringing everyone back into the office from working at home, tell them to keep their home office furniture in case remote work arrangements become necessary again. If you don’t require vaccines, make sure workers know that could change at any time. On the other hand, make sure they’re aware things like masking policies likely won’t be needed forever. 

Any flexible policy will be easier for employees to understand and follow if they know the specific conditions under which it will change. For instance, you might decide to lift a masking requirement if 100% of people in the office become vaccinated. 

The following news report highlights the importance of flexible policies:

Review Policies Often

Even the most flexible policies may not hold up as conditions continue to shift. Therefore, review them often to determine if they still make sense with current medical, legal, and governmental guidance. Make sure employees know that policies are always subject to change and that you will communicate those changes as soon as they’re made. A weekly text or email newsletter is a great way to provide consistent information about current rules. 

Consider Permanent Changes

As you work through what your current policies should be, consider that some of them should be more than just temporary. For instance, do most of your employees really like working from home? If so, do you really still need a physical office? What about a smaller one in which you only have meetings with clients? Such changes could introduce greater efficiency and reduce costs that you could pass on to employees in higher salaries or to customers in lower prices. 

While no one wants to believe COVID-19 is a permanent fact of life with no chance of going “back to normal,” some of the changes made over the past year and a half could ultimately become permanent and bring beneficial results.

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