The pandemic fueled a massive work-from-home trend that many non-essential businesses have maintained for the past 18 months or more. But despite the current surge in COVID-19 cases, more and more employers are asking employees to return — causing a fair share of anxiety and fear, especially among the unvaccinated. As employers receive pushback from their teams, what can be done to ease employee comfort and peace of mind around colleagues, customers and clients after an extended hiatus?
A heavy-handed request?
With the FDA fully approving the vaccine beyond emergency use, employers may increasingly be making vaccination a requirement for returning to the office.
As an employer, you have options up to and including termination (in some circumstances) if employees refuse to return to the office or get vaccinated. But will on-site work directly impact or negate your success?
Here are some potential reasons to reconsider a blanket return-or-quit policy.
- Employees may be genuinely reluctant for legitimate health reasons.
- It may cause more stress for employees whose lives have already been turned upside down by COVID-19.
- You risk damaging morale across the workforce.
- You may have wrongly assessed the legal risks of doing so.
- It might be harder than expected to recruit replacements for terminated employees.
The first step in formulating a return-to-work strategy is uncovering why your employees are reluctant to stop working from home. Consider conducting a survey, but avoid giving the impression that simply preferring to work at home is a compelling enough reason to allow it.
Reassuring employees of your commitment to maintaining a safe environment may help alleviate concerns. Here are some tips to help them get on board:
- Give a generous heads up. Set the onsite work deadline a month or two into the future to give employees time to adjust and plan head.
- Have a conversation. If feasible, have one-on-one conversations with employees who express worry about returning to work. They’re more likely to come around if they know you respect their concerns and want to understand them. A reasonable compromise might emerge.
- Educate, educate, educate. Inform employees about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) workplace safety standards and the scientific basis for those practices, as well as your compliance practices.
- Enact a policy phase-in period. Instead of setting an all-or-nothing date of return, allow employees to slowly acclimate. You may ask them to return for one or two days a week initially, adding more days over time.
- Be flexible and fair. Cutting deals with individual employees may create resentment from others. While doing your best to accommodate individual needs, it’s important to ensure that your practices are reasonable for everyone.
Help from Uncle Sam
If you’re considering a mandatory vaccination policy to accompany your return-to-work policy, you may consider incentivizing hesitant employees to get their jab.
One possible solution is to offer paid time off for COVID-19 vaccine appointments. Some employers take this a step further, offering a financial bonus on top of regular pay.
A little compassion goes a long way
No matter how you approach the task at hand, be aware of the many health conditions that may make people more vulnerable to contracting or having an acute case of COVID-19. The CDC’s list includes cancer, chronic kidney disease, COPD, heart conditions, obesity, pregnancy, smoking and diabetes. And some employees with these conditions might worry about COVID-19-related health risks at the workplace, even if they’ve been vaccinated.
In all cases, be sure to review how federal, state and local statutes may impact the approaches you can take.