This research outlines benchmark data on the impact of the omicron variant on workplace reopening plans, employee health and safety policies, and business travel guidelines.
With the rapid spread of the new SARS-CoV-2 variant, termed “omicron” by the World Health Organization (WHO), leaders are assessing the impact it will have on their workplace reopening plans and other health and safety policies. As per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S., the nation’s seven-day case average was above 600,000 cases as of 25 January 2022, and hospital admissions and deaths have started to plateau after mid-January surges.
The WHO has warned that the pandemic will not end with the omicron variant, and high levels of infection around the world will likely lead to new variants as the virus mutates.The omicron variant is known to be highly transmissible and shows increased risk of both reinfection and breakthrough infection after vaccination.
While omicron infections are generally milder, the high number of cases has resulted in increased hospitalizations.The surge in cases has led to disruptive staff shortages across the world: 85% of executive leaders reported in ourJanuary 2022 poll that their organizations witnessed an increase in employee absenteeism in the last two months (see Figure 1), and 45% of these executive leaders reported a significant increase in employee absenteeism.This may be attributed to employees taking leave from work to self-isolate and recover after testing positive for COVID-19 or after being exposed to the virus. As reports about the omicron variant become available, businesses are reassessing decisions related to workplace reopening timelines, health and safety policies, and business travel guidelines.
Forty-three percent of leaders said the rise of the omicron variant has decreased the number of people at worksites, while 20% of leaders indicated their organizations have closed some or all of their open worksites(see Figure 2).
According to our December 2021 poll, 64% of organizations are using national, state or local government restrictions or guidance to assess the impact of the omicron variant on their workplace reopening decision (see Figure 3). Many organizations are also relying on the rate of infection and increase or decrease in number of cases to open or reclose workspaces.
The rise in omicron cases has increased employees’ concerns about their employers’ health and safety guidelines. The three most popular health and safety policy guidelines that organizations with reopened offices persist with include wearing masks (59%), sanitization protocols for common spaces in the workplace (59%) and social distancing while in the workplace (58%) (see Figure 4).
Many organizations will likely start contending with whether to require booster shots, given that some countries, including the U.S. and the U.K., have updated guidance recommending every adult receive one. Our research indicates 77% of organizations are considering employees fully vaccinated if they have taken the initially recommended vaccination dose (e.g., one shot for Johnson & Johnson, two shots for Pfizer), while 21% are considering employees fully vaccinated only after they have taken a booster shot.There has been a 13-percentage-point increase in the number of organizations considering booster shots as criteria for defining fully vaccinated status from December 2021 to January 2022 (see Figure 5).
Contact tracing is another key strategy for ensuring the safety of employees returning to the workplace. It helps interrupt chains of virus transmission and reduce COVID-19-associated mortality. Sixty-six percent of organizations responding to our January poll reported they conduct contact tracing for exposed employees, clients and customers when an employee tests positive for COVID-19 at a worksite.
In December 2021, 43% of leaders reported their organization is not changing travel guidelines due to the omicron variant, while 39% had not made a decision (see Figure 6). Most organizations were only allowing limited business travel, while some had put in place restrictions that allowed travel based on certain factors (e.g., vaccination status, critical business need, senior leadership approval).
Recommended by the Authors
Gartner Workplace Reopening and Retention Strategies Webinar Poll (19 January 2022). This survey was conducted during a webinar with over 400 executive leaders (function heads and business unit leaders) on the line from a wide spectrum of industries. A large majority of respondents were based in North America, though the perspectives and practices they shared were developed to support their global organizations.
Gartner Strategies for Vaccination, Return to Worksites, and Talent Attraction and Retention Webinar Poll (15 December 2021). This survey was conducted during a webinar with over 200 executive leaders (function heads and business unit leaders) on the line from a wide spectrum of industries. A large majority of respondents were based in North America, though the perspectives and practices they shared were developed to support their global organizations.