How to Talk to Employees About Reopening

by | Jun 4, 2021 | Announcements

Is your nonprofit planning to reopen soon? Have you planned how the work schedule and environment will be different? Most importantly, have you discussed this with your employees so they know what to expect? This insightful article from Harvard Business Review will provide you with a valuable perspective on this important issue.

At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, there was rampant speculation that one of the long-term implications would be the end of the office. While the workplace will undoubtedly become a hybrid environment with more employees working remotely at least part of the time, the reality is that companies will still have offices. In fact, according to a poll of more than 200 respondents conducted during a recent Gartner webinar, only 1% of midsize companies are planning on becoming fully remote organizations. On the other end of the spectrum, only 5% of midsize companies are planning on having all employees come back to the physical workplace. The remaining 94% will have some mix of in-office, remote, and hybrid employees.

As more individuals are getting vaccinated, business leaders need to shift their thinking from the abstract question of where employees will work to the reality that there is a specific day on the calendar that some kind of return to the office will actually occur. That day appears to be approaching quickly, as the same Gartner poll found that 69% of midsize companies are planning on reopening their workplaces in the second half of 2021. The question of how to return to the office will be more challenging than the abrupt shift to remote work was in March of 2020, given the variability of rules, regulations, and people’s vaccination status.

Vaccinations Aren’t the Entire Solution

The poll showed that the majority of employees support the idea of their employer mandating Covid-19 vaccination. However, only 8% of poll respondents said they’re actually planning to require proof of vaccination as part of their return-to-workplace strategy. The most common approach midsize companies are taking is to strongly encourage vaccination but not ask for proof of vaccination status (48%) and to ask employees to self-report if they’ve been vaccinated (36%). Unfortunately, these two approaches will leave employers in the dark as to the degree to which their employees have actually been vaccinated.

Opportunities for Midsize Businesses in 2021

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While there has been discussion around vaccine passports as a way to prove one’s vaccination status, there are several reasons why they’re not ideal. First, the speed at which they’re being developed is lagging behind the speed at which companies are planning to reopen their offices. Second, different states are considering different strategies: For example, Texas and Florida have recently announced that employers will not be allowed to use them, but other states like New York and Illinois appear to be positively inclined toward them. This variability in approaches across states will make it difficult for employers with distributed workforces to create comprehensive policies.

Many employers are also hesitant to collect this information due to privacy and legal concerns. Chief human resources officers have indicated that because vaccines are part of an employee’s health care record, collecting information about who has been vaccinated could potentially be considered crossing a privacy line. Legal concerns could emerge if an employee has an adverse reaction to a vaccine their employer required them to get. Additionally, an employer might be sued for creating an unfair set of conditions for employees who choose not to get vaccinated. Even if the law is on the employer’s side, the reputational damage that could result from a legal fight doesn’t seem worthwhile for most companies.

How to Foster a Safe Environment

The net result of these factors is that employers will be reopening offices to some number of unvaccinated employees. Here are four strategies midsize companies can use to navigate how to open up the workplace in a way that maximizes employee safety and productivity.

Announce reopening plans well in advance. Many employees harbor concerns about how safe the workplace will be. Communicate your company’s reopening plan to employees well in advance of the actual date. Communications should indicate the actual safety measures you’ll have in place, as well as enhance perceptions of safety. For example, if employees commute primarily via mass transit, they’ll also be seeking guidance or reassurance about the safety of their journeys to work.

Define and communicate your hybrid work strategy. Gartner’s 2021 Hybrid Work Employee Survey of more than 2,400 knowledge workers found that 54% of employees agreed that their employer’s approach to flexibility will impact whether they’ll stay at their organization. A hybrid approach will allow employers to meet employees’ new flexibility preferences.

Despite widespread plans to adopt hybrid models, just 21% of HR leaders polled in Gartner’s recent webinar indicated they have a clear vision for the future role of the physical workplace. Creating a hybrid strategy that works and makes employees feel safe requires companies to clearly communicate when people should work from the office and when they should work from a different location. For example, Dropbox announced a “Virtual First” strategy, defining the purpose of the office as specifically for collaboration and community-building and not for individual work.

Create Covid safety moments. Leaders in oil and gas and manufacturing have long embedded safety moments in their workplaces to prevent injuries from occurring. This same mindset needs to be adopted across industries to create Covid safety moments. Leaders and managers should set aside a short amount of time per day to remind employees about the importance of Covid safety measures in the workplace.

This will become even more important as vaccines continue to be administered and employees start to let down their guard. These safety moments will be the most effective if leaders enable employees to talk to their colleagues about them, as peers are often more trusted than leaders or HR on workplace issues. A 2019 Gartner Global Labor Market Survey found that employees and candidates trust current employees the most for information about working at a particular organization. Employees talking among themselves will be an important part of creating a safe workplace.

Set guardrails around vaccine conversations. The development and rollout of Covid-19 vaccines has created an unparalleled interest in the efficacy of and experience with vaccinations more broadly. As employees return to the workplace, they’ll naturally discuss whether or not they’ve been vaccinated. Those who haven’t been vaccinated might get excluded from certain interactions like getting lunch together. Others might look down on those who have been vaccinated.

Leaders and managers need to communicate what conversations and behaviors are acceptable in the workplace regarding each individual’s vaccination status. While leaders might be tempted to simply ban all conversations about vaccination status, this isn’t realistic given the desire for employees to talk to each other. Rather, organizations should remind employees that vaccinations are a personal decision, and they shouldn’t pry or question their colleagues’ choices. Without these guidelines, companies risk not only uncomfortable interactions, but discriminatory behavior between employees based on their vaccination status.

While the desire is to return to “normal” as quickly as possible, the reality is that the workplaces employees return to in 2021 will not look like the ones they left in 2020. Encouraging employees to get vaccinated is good, but it’s not enough. The companies that are thoughtful about safety, flexibility, and clear communication will have the most success as we enter another period of profound change.

By Brian Kropp and Joe Coyle on Jun 04, 2021 in Santa Barbara Nonprofits