With no official playbook from federal, state, or even local governments on how to reopen businesses, universities, healthcare facilities, sports teams, major venues, and other organizations, employers and HR leaders have been left to fend for themselves. Developing an effective return-to-work strategy while keeping employees safe and lowering liability risks is a tall order, but leaders must start somewhere. Workers and their families are counting on us to avoid yet another year of economic turmoil.
To be successful in combating COVID-19 and other infectious disease outbreaks in the workplace, HR leaders must remember three key points when planning their organization’s next steps.
1. Accept the Uncomfortable Truth About the Pandemic
As leaders, we’re hardwired to be optimistic and believe that with perseverance, everything will work out. But the arrival of COVID-19 threw out so many norms. Preparedness needs to override optimism.
Hoping that a vaccine is the end of this chapter is not an effective business strategy. More COVID-19 variants are discovered on what feels like a weekly basis, and medical experts are struggling to keep up. The response to COVID-19 revealed weaknesses in our overall health infrastructure, and when future infectious diseases hit—which they will—they will have the same drastic effects.
Whether we like to admit it or not, a “post-COVID” world is still far, far away, and future infectious disease outbreaks will impact businesses. The quicker we accept this reality, the quicker we can establish new norms that work for our people and our organizations.
2. Identify the Financial Benefits of Return to Work
Beyond the logistical benefits of having people back in the same space, returning to work (if done safely and strategically) can become a financial advantage against competitors.
Throughout the past year, organizations that have adapted to the pandemic quickly are outperforming their peers. Just take a look at retail giants like Home Depot, which adjusted to meet the needs of social distancing and was rewarded with a 27% HD stock boost in 2020. Thermo Fisher made $2 billion in revenue during quarter three of last year by switching to COVID test manufacturing, and even Hershey managed to increase year-over-year Halloween sales by focusing on baking and socially distant trick or treating.
Businesses that kept employees working and took health and safety measures above and beyond what is required by the law have been able to keep their companies open while others close, ultimately taking market share from competitors.
To put it simply, market forces should drive preparedness. And preparing to comply with short-term health and safety regulations isn’t enough to overcome competitors—preparedness against future public health emergencies needs to be a key value now, post-COVID, and beyond.
3. Face Vaccine Management Head On
Vaccine management is already a headache, and it’s only the beginning. So many questions remain unanswered—which of my employees can get the vaccine? Who will actually get the vaccine? How do I keep track? Can I mandate it?
The reality is that the vaccines, though immensely important, are not the solution. Managing who in your organization receives them and increasing that portion are vital, but because most employers won’t be able to mandate it, there will always be a part of your workforce that is not vaccinated. Mixed immunity will be something we live with now and forever, so you’ll need to know who these workers are and employ a different protocol for them.
Accepting this complicated situation allows employers to establish a vaccine management program and work within its restraints.
All three of these takeaways require a complete reimagining of health in the workplace, but they also require the implementation of a data-driven, safety-first return-to-work strategy.
We may not ever reestablish a sense of “normal,” but by accepting the reality of the pandemic, finding the right financial incentives, and confronting vaccine management head on, you can safely transition your team back to your work space.
Tarun Nimmagadda is the co-founder, CEO and Chairman of ReturnSafe. Prior to founding ReturnSafe, Tarun was the CEO of Ruckit and was the Founder and CEO of Mutual Mobile, pioneering mobile app development for F500 companies. He started Mutual Mobile at the age of 21 and grew the company into one of the largest mobile app development companies in Texas, leading to an acquisition by WPP. Tarun is also a board member and advisor to the Department of Computer Science at the University of Texas and to Mutual Mobile.