Coronavirus (COVID-19), HR Management & Compliance

How to Return to Physical Workspaces if We Don’t Reach Herd Immunity

COVID-19 has pitted health and safety against the well-being of people and organizations. Keeping communities safe has meant sacrificing so much, and the pains of the past year have been twofold: Businesses have been forced to close or become remote, and workers’ emotional well-being has been at risk.

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After everything we’ve collectively been through, it’s understandable that employers want to get people back into physical workspaces as soon as possible. But despite best efforts this past year to keep people safe and organizations afloat, many businesses didn’t make it, and millions of people lost their jobs.

The current reality is that the pandemic isn’t over; millions of Americans will never get vaccinated, new variants continue to appear, and there’s a large possibility that we may never reach herd immunity. When we go back to work, HR leaders must ensure that guardrails are put in place to make this return more successful than attempts to work throughout this past year.

Infectious disease outbreaks remain a threat to businesses, employee health, and workers’ emotional well-being, so if we want to avoid another year of economic and emotional turmoil, we must ensure that every workplace has a long-term solution to address issues related to COVID-19 and beyond.

Yes, We Are Returning to Physical Workspaces

The value of being in the office is immeasurable, and we expect in-person to be a dominant paradigm for many workplaces. We’ve seen this with our own customers at ReturnSafe. The vast majority of our clients have returned to in-person work in full force or are preparing to do so soon. Workplace returns should, of course, be designed with what’s best for any given organization in mind, but so many fields (manufacturing, hospitality, and laboratory research, for example) will eventually need to return to physical spaces. This reality should not be avoided.

Employee Concerns

However, it’s clear that employees are extremely concerned about how employers plan to manage vaccinations, social distancing, and new infectious diseases down the line.

For example, many workers might feel safer around vaccinated coworkers, and though business leaders are encouraging workers to get vaccinated to keep others safe, a majority of employers are not currently mandating vaccinations to return to physical spaces.

But how can HR leaders be sure they know how their team feels about these sensitive topics without communicating with them?

Because these are new and nuanced concerns, understanding worker sentiment as it relates to the vaccine will be key to effective encouragement and management, so HR leaders should consider issuing routine worker sentiment polls to better gauge key decisions.

Despite leadership’s eagerness to return to the office, employers are obligated to respect these concerns and communicate accordingly. After so much loss of life this past year, it’s impossible to know exactly what your team has been through, and concerns surrounding safety and in-person work should be validated and respected.

How to Manage a Mixed-Immunity Environment

If we never reach herd immunity—and there’s a strong possibility we won’t—mixed-immunity work environments will be one of the biggest challenges and new normals employers face returning to physical spaces. Regardless of why some people choose to decline a vaccine and what we think of it, it’s a reality we have to live with. With the country on the fence about vaccine requirements and vaccine passports, companies need to find a way to instill employee confidence in imperfect in-person environments.

So, it’s up to HR leaders to come up with solutions to the complexities of mixed immunity. Here are four suggestions:

  • Know your local, state, and federal guidelines.
  • Know the vaccination status of your employees.
  • Establish safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among vaccinated and unvaccinated employees.
  • Stay abreast of the epidemiology status of your community, and be ready to tighten or loosen your safety measures as appropriate.

Additionally, with the vaccine status of their workers in mind, HR leaders need to implement separate safety measures for the unvaccinated. This might include:

  • Mask mandates.
  • Daily health screeners.
  • A routine testing plan to catch cases early, keeping this data private and organized. (Luckily, costs have come way down and availability has gone way up, making it feasible to test regularly.)
  • Plans for when outbreaks do occur. This requires:
    • Robust contact tracing
    • Quarantine protocols

It’s time to stop waiting for herd immunity to come to fruition. The legacy of COVID-19 will endure, and work will never look the same. Redesigning work environments now is a must, and with employee concerns and mixed immunity in mind, HR leaders can make the decisions they need to protect their organizations, no matter the state of the pandemic.

Dr. Jikku Venkat is a Cofounder and CEO of ReturnSafe. For the past 20 years, Venkat has been involved with start-up companies in healthcare technology, enterprise software, cloud software as a service (SaaS), and virtualization areas.