As expanding availability and administration of COVID-19 vaccines help bring the pandemic under control, we all look forward to resuming “normal” life. For many employers, that means getting employees back to work in person, at least part of the time.
What the new normal will look like is not yet clear, as the virus remains a potential threat requiring new ways of managing risk and maximizing workplace safety. We know that returning to work will entail more than reopening facilities and creating quarantine policies. Along with safety concerns, many companies are contending with pandemic-related changes in how they do business and changed expectations among their workers.
While working from home provided opportunities to try new logistical and organizational paradigms, it also gave rise to new kinds of fatigue, burn-out, and social isolation. Millions of employees are eager to get back to the office while millions more are looking for new arrangements—hybrid models—that combine the advantages of working on-site and from home. And for some, the ideal scenario going forward is not to return to the office at all.
Businesses, too, discovered ways that remote working created value for teams and organizations. All kinds of possibilities opened for employees and employers. Sorting through them and designing the optimal path forward won’t necessarily be easy. Who is needed on-site and who is not? Who will be permitted to work remotely some or all the time and who will be required to come to the office? Balancing the interests of the company with those of employees while managing COVID-19 risk presents substantial challenges for businesses of all sizes and types.
On top of everything else, we’re faced withThe Great Resignation: employee turnover rates that are higher than ever. The Department of Labor reported that nearly 11.5 million workers quit their jobs during the second quarter of 2021. That trend had become evident before COVID-19 struck, and employees’ experiences during the pandemic have prompted many more to reconsider their options and choices around work.
For employers, all of this means devising an optimal return-to-work policy for each organization is a complex undertaking—and one that’s critical to get right.
The keystone of every successful return to work policy will be an employee vaccination policy, which comes with its own specific challenges.
The slow initial rollout of COVID-19 vaccines along with rampant misinformation about the virus and about vaccination have created significant hurdles for employers. Factor in the changing guidelines from public health organizations and government officials, and it is no wonder business leaders might have difficulty deciding whether to mandate vaccines and how to manage around their decision, whatever it may be.
Workers may have strong opinions about COVID-19 vaccination, and the issue can have huge implications for morale across an organization. A Gallup poll indicated as of August, 2021, employees’ opinions about vaccine mandates are polarized, with 72% either strongly in favor or strongly opposed. Some employees focus on maximizing safety while others are more concerned about privacy violations. Those in either camp may find it difficult to understand or accept the other perspective.
When it comes to building your COVID-19 vaccine policy, as with any workplace policy, it is essential to do your research and keep your knowledge up to date. The last thing you want is to launch a workplace vaccination policy and then need to revise it immediately. Unlike many other situations, in the case of COVID-19 vaccination it will likely be an ongoing task to stay current as the public health situation continues to evolve due to new variants of the virus as well as new treatments and vaccines.
Key questions you will need to consider include:
Begin by researching legal options for your company and your employees. Per the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), an employer can require employees to get an FDA-authorized or approved COVID-19 vaccine but must afford recognized protections pertaining to medical conditions and religious beliefs.
Is your workforce covered by a collective bargaining agreement? If so, then you will likely need to negotiate with the union before adopting a policy that requires vaccination.
Another consideration is whether your policy should apply across-the-board or contain different provisions for different segments of your workforce. Will most of your employees continue working remotely? Are some positions at higher risk than others, e.g., due to interactions with the public or work necessarily performed in close quarters or confined spaces? Do you employ essential workers?
Bestselling author and Wharton organizational psychologist Adam Grant offered this suggestion: “Let's actually analyze what kinds of jobs people are doing. Because some jobs are easier to do remotely than others. How much collaboration does your job require?”
It’s also important to stay up to date on the most current information and guidelines from public health authorities regarding workplace safety. If your business operates in multiple locations, be aware that public health guidance as well as state and local policies may vary from place to place.
As you determine how to create a vaccine policy, approach the issue with compassion and flexibility. Consider what you know about your employees: who they are, how they feel about their community(s), and what kinds of challenges the pandemic has created for them at work and at home.
To build an effective policy, it’s best to start by listening. Recent research found that vaccination status and attitudes about getting vaccinated vary substantially by industry and role. For instance, fully two-thirds of HR leaders in the medical field are vaccinated compared with fewer than one-third of those in either IT consulting or marketing.
Your employees’ perspectives about COVID-19 vaccination and workplace safety may or may not surprise you. It’s your responsibility to determine the best policy for your organization, but it’s both strategically wise and fair-handed to understand what your workers think and how they feel before you create that policy.
It’s important to take into account your employees’ perspectives, which can help you develop specific policy provisions and achieve a successful implementation.. That’s where employee surveys come in.
Sending a survey gives employees the opportunity to share their views and ask questions of you. Demonstrating respect for their viewpoints and ensuring they feel heard will go a long way in helping things go smoothly at the outset and later, after your COVID-19 vaccine policy has been implemented.
When you invite your employees to take the survey, you can communicate how participating will enable employees to have a voice in planning for safer workplace re-entry, and help the company understand and support their situations. Subject lines with language such as “Help us plan for a safe return-to-work” and “Share your perspective about COVID-19 vaccination” communicate that employees’ input is valued and will be taken into account.
Survey questions should capture employees’ perceptions about COVID-19 vaccination including current vaccination status, receptivity to getting vaccinated, logistical and financial barriers, perceived benefits, concerns and questions, and factors influencing their attitudes. Below are some examples of questions you might use.
Include open-ended questions that invite employees to express any concerns and questions in their own words, and to learn what factors are likely to influence their choices about getting vaccinated. For example:
Responses to open-end questions may surface factors you had not considered. They can also be used to invite private, anonymous communication where you can follow up with individuals to clarify responses and understand their fundamental issues.
While it’s up to your leadership team to set policy for your organization, it will help to know what other companies in your industry are doing and how they are approaching the situation. Those kinds of insights provide useful context for your decision making and offer points of comparison you can use in communicating with your workforce.
When deploying a workplace vaccination policy, it’s important to ensure your HR team is prepared. It’s crucial to think through every detail and its implications. For instance, if you opt to require COVID-19 vaccination, what will be the process to establish proof of vaccination? What will happen—exactly, step by step—if an employee chooses not to comply?
As you develop processes around your vaccination policy, remember to account for scheduling parameters associated with vaccination. How long after inoculation is a recipient considered fully vaccinated (which varies depending on the vaccine received)? If a second dose is required, what is the time interval between the first and final doses?
If your policy includes provisions about COVID-19 testing, then timing is also a consideration when establishing requirements.
Clear, consistent communication is critical around your COVID-19 vaccination policy. Everyone in the organization must understand what the policy is, what is expected of them, and when. Managers and supervisors will need to be on board—fully briefed and prepared to escalate questions. Pre-approved messaging and coaching can help everyone stay on the same page and ensure employees don’t receive mixed signals.
Be transparent about how decisions were reached. Some people may not like the policy and emotions might run higher around COVID-19 vaccination compared to most company policies. Understanding the leadership team’s reasoning and priorities that drive the policy can go a long way in fostering acceptance and compliance.
Be sure managers are visibly compliant with the policy in advance of asking non-management employees to comply. Again, where some proportion of the workforce might be unhappy with the policy, it’s helpful to make it clear the whole organization is in it together.
An important component of workplace vaccination policy is clearly defining non-compliance and spelling out the consequences. As with other aspects of the implementation, think through the process and be sure everyone understands exactly what to expect.
Should your company opt to require COVID-19 vaccination for employees returning to work, there are several strategies you can use to encourage compliance.
Incentivizing any specific behavior, including getting vaccinated, respects the individual’s freedom of choice and offers tangible appreciation for their cooperation. An incentive should be attractive enough to motivate but never so strong as to be coercive.
Incentives can be financial or take other forms. Possibilities include:
Some companies have instituted incentives around health care benefits, e.g., limiting coverage for COVID-19 treatment and care to fully vaccinated employees.
Look at what your employees say they need and respond accordingly. For many people the main barriers to getting vaccinated are logistical. Time constraints, transportation access, and childcare (and/or elder care) can all make even a simple non-routine errand all but impossible to accomplish. Depending on the size of your workforce and where they are located, you might consider arranging a vaccination clinic on-site.
In any case, consider compensating employees for time spent at vaccine appointments including travel and wait time as well as time needed to recover from any side effects. Consider subsidizing other needs such as childcare or transportation, e.g., covering the cost of a ride-hailing service for travel to and from vaccine appointments.
Non-vaccinated employees may be resistant or only hesitant, fearful or simply apathetic. Attitudes may be driven by lack of information and/or misinformation about the virus as well as the efficacy and safety of available vaccines. Education helps people make fully informed decisions and as an employer, you can share credible, complete information that addresses common questions and concerns. Feeling fully informed can encourage those who are unsure to get vaccinated when they are eligible.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has created an array of resources to support communication and education about COVID-19 vaccination. These include fact sheets, printable posters, scripts for public service announcements (PSAs), and a selection of widgets, buttons, and graphics that can be used in social media campaigns.
Finding our post-pandemic “normal” involves getting back to work and for many companies, developing strong workplace vaccine policies. Communication is crucial before, during, and after policy implementation, as is listening to your employees throughout. SurveyMonkey offers solutions that enable you to stay tuned in to your employees’ needs and expectations. Contact us to learn more about how our solutions can help you ensure a smooth and effective return to work.