As HR leaders plan to reopen workplaces, various risks and uncertainties abound. This article outlines HR’s perceived risks, organizations’ support for vaccine rollout, employee data collection and planned safety measures in the reopened workplace.
As vaccines roll out across the world, HR leaders now must plan for a transition back to the workplace in some capacity. Organizations that switched to remote work at the beginning of the pandemic now have to plan for a possible return to the workplace, while others that already have employees working in-person are rethinking their current policies to account for a changing health and safety landscape.
Since widespread vaccination is still far from complete, it can be unclear which organizations are planning to change and which are not.In March 2021, we polled HR leaders from large multinational organizations across industries to understand their views on four key decision areas relevant to postvaccine health and safety as employees return to work: perceived risks, vaccine rollout support, employee data collection and workplace safety measures. The following is a summary of the key findings.
Organizations still face uncertainty about the future when it comes to returning to work in a healthy and safe manner. While vaccination efforts are well underway in some parts of the world, they are not as far along in others, creating challenges for multinational organizations. There is the question of what to do if employees choose not to vaccinate, and on top of all this, potential loss of employee trust is top of mind for employers.
The biggest risk HR leaders quote is the potential loss of employee trust due to sensitivity to the organization’s policies (44%). Other top risks quoted by HR leaders include lack of clarity of vaccine access and distribution plans across regions (37%), public distrust of vaccine efficacy(32%), and legal liabilities from internal vaccine policies or employee noncompliance (28%).
As vaccinations become more widespread, HR leaders plan to encourage vaccination but not make it mandatory. Eighty-nine percent of HR leaders plan to or are currently encouraging their employees to vaccinate, but 93% of them will not require it to return to the workplace (see Figure 1). HR leaders plan to take a number of actions to promote vaccination in some way, whether that be through creating internal campaigns on the benefits (80% of HR leaders), providing resources on where and how to get vaccinated (76% of HR leaders) or providing time off (72% of HR leaders) (see Figure 1).
HR teams are generally avoiding direct methods of providing vaccines to employees, such as facilitating distribution or incentivizing employees, potentially because government and healthcare providers in some countries are already handling this aspect, and organization involvement can potentially pose legal risks. Employers are not generally covering the costs of the vaccine for employee’s families, although this may already be covered by other means such as government health services or private insurance plans.
Collecting employee health data can often present privacy challenges, and that applies to COVID-19 symptom and vaccination data as well. Because of this, many organizations are reluctant to collect various forms of COVID-19-related health data. Only 39% of HR leaders collect or plan to collect current symptoms, 34% collect or plan to collect temperature data, and 17% collect or plan to collect immunization records (see Figure 2).
The one exception is COVID-19 infection status; 55% of employers collect or plan to collect whether employees have the infection or have been exposed (see Figure 2).
Employers who plan to collect health data plan to use it primarily to design safety measures (66%), inform their communications strategy for employee health and safety (63%) and determine who can return to work (50%) (see Figure 2). A smaller number of employers may also request or collect immunization records for reasons where the immunization directly protects customers (e.g., hospitals or nursing homes) or where customers would buy a service contingent on employee immunization (e.g., renting a venue where employees are vaccinated).
Despite changes in operations and increased rates of vaccination, many organizations plan to continue the safety measures they are currently implementing. Ninety-four percent of HR leaders plan to limit the number of employees allowed in conference rooms; 89% plan to enforce social distancing in high-traffic areas; and 85% of employers plan to continue requiring masks in the workplace (see Figure 3).
There is less support to keep cafeterias and gyms closed (38%) or keep plexiglass shields (51%) (see Figure 3).
While many HR leaders indicated they will keep current safety measures in place, some indicate they are waiting for further direction from the CDC or other health organizations for guidance on changes in safety measures.
As HR leaders identify, loss of employee trust due to sensitivity to the organization’s policies is a key risk, meaning policies must be carefully designed and communicated. Since employees have adapted their lives to remote working, the return to the workplace transition should be regarded as a disruptionrather than return to normal, requiring appropriate change management.
HR leaders should consider what the employee experience will look like postpandemic and whether they can communicate the value to employees of returning to the workplace, particularly as hybrid work becomes more common. What are the benefits of the workplace? What are the drawbacks? How is the organization supporting their transition into the next normal? The shift toward the workplace will be a large one and will likely involve rethinking health and safety as well as the role of managers, equity in the return to work, change management during the shift and much more.
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