The Omicron Variant Is Impacting the Return to the Office — What Should HR Leaders Do Now?

January 07, 2022

Contributor: Mary Baker

Protecting employee health, well-being and engagement are the top priorities.

Companies have once again had to backtrack on their back-to-the-office plans due to the surge in COVID-19 cases amid the Omicron variant. A mid-December 2021 Gartner survey found 44% of companies had pushed back or altered their reopening plans, and employees must now grapple with more uncertainty around where they will work and for how long. 

We spoke with Elisabeth Joyce, Vice President at Gartner, about the impact of this all what HR leaders can do.

Download now: The CHRO's Role in Planning the Return to Workplace

How are companies altering their reopening plans at this point?

Throughout COVID, organizations have had to keep reopening plans flexible and adaptable to the changing landscape of the pandemic. As we saw in the summer of 2020, then into 2021 with the Delta variant and now with Omicron, organizations are pivoting in real time. When Gartner surveyed more than 125 business leaders in mid-December, 27% said they were delaying reopening plans or closing reopened workplaces, and 17% reported they were decreasing the number of workers allowed on-site at a time. Chances are this has only since increased.

How is the uncertainty around the return to the office affecting employee well-being?

What’s been particularly challenging about the real-time adjustments is workers feeling like they are in the dark with little insight into how their employer is thinking about things and making decisions. For employers, the key is to communicate in an authentic and transparent way with the workforce. Be honest about the fact that this is a difficult situation to navigate and that no one has all the answers.

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At the same time, it’s important to keep in mind the effects of the continued drag of the COVID reality on how employees live and feel. School closings, childcare issues, potential for quarantines and general lack of being able to engage in our “typical” life is tiring — and that makes a big impact on the overall well-being of employees. 

At this moment, employers need to consider, again, the different things people need to manage the very real merger of work and life while driving productivity. For example, with Omicron, we are seeing more young people test positive, which means we will probably see more and more kids shifting back to virtual learning — even if for a few days. Organizations need to plan for that and have strategies in place that allow for the quickly changing needs of employees who are also caretakers.

Learn more: The Future of Work Reinvented

In today’s environment, how should employers think about employee engagement? 

The decisions leaders make in terms of Omicron response management (and potentially future variants) will have a direct impact on employee engagement, attraction and retention. It’s not enough to think about engagement strategies; employers need to position support strategies that meet employees where they are as they manage their personal and professional lives through this surge. 

We have found that the traditional focal points of engagement to drive attraction and retention — career opportunities, recognition and pay — are not sufficient during this sort of crisis. Employees engage when there is flexibility, stability and workload management to enable them to navigate the integration of work and life. Managers must double down on empathy to better understand what employees need to be productive and provide enablement, not just engagement tactics. 

How should organizations operate going forward so far as reopening their physical offices?

The key is to have a flexible strategy with defined triggers for making adjustments to plans. Organizations that are getting this right are not aligning on a specific, and largely arbitrary, date; rather, they are looking at conditions that will allow for opening or increasing access to an office space. Being able to turn up and turn down access to offices will be key as well. I have started to see organizations reposition conversations from “return to workplace” to “access to office space.”

Ultimately, a positive experience will be marked by the value of reentering the physical workplace being greater than the effort it takes to return.

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