The COVID Variant Effect - Rethinking Return to Work
#evolve Magazine
January 20, 2022

As Mike Tyson once succinctly put it, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Many employers were anxiously waiting for the approach of fall to launch their carefully laid out return-to-workplace plans. The hope was that, with the supposed return to in-person school, most workers could come back to the office at least much of the time.

Then the Delta variant arrived, bringing with it increased anxiety about breakthrough infections. Now we have the Omicron variant presenting new challenges, and employers are now scrambling to reconsider their return-to-work plans. As cases surged and vaccination rates flatlined, companies like Apple, Twitter, Disney, J.P. Morgan and Walmart began to reevaluate their original return-to-office schedules with strict vaccine mandates and delayed reopenings, or closed offices altogether until further notice.

Many managers have invested a lot of time and energy building programs for a safe and productive workplace return, and they’re naturally eager to get the ball rolling. Meanwhile, recent Glassdoor and Harris polls of workers show that more than 80% of employees are excited about going back to the office in at least some capacity, even as two-thirds also feel at least some anxiety about their return.

As frustrating as this current situation may be, it’s also an opportunity for employers to demonstrate real empathy and creativity, by ensuring that their return plans remain agile and resilient. Here are just a few key things organizations can do to put their best foot forward on the road back to office life:

  • Think Safety First: As obvious as it sounds, in times like this, physical and psychological safety need to be paramount. The only way a return to workplace can possibly be successful is by absolutely assuring baseline safety.
  • Make Decisions That Work for Your Workplace: No two companies are the same. Decisions about return to the work- place and employee/customer safety need to be informed  by the makeup of your workforce, whether employees are located in close quarters or can work remotely, the degree to which close collaboration is needed within work teams, and the degree to which employees work with the public or vulnerable populations — as in health care, education and social services. Employee preferences should also be prioritized.
  • Keep Whole-Person Values in Mind: Plans should be made in light of Whole-Person values, in which employers consider the work-life challenges and stressors of their employees when making decisions. This always holds true, but in the midst of a pandemic, it’s simply mandatory. A whole-person mindset allows employers to develop custom solutions, including flexible scheduling, child-care or elder-care solutions, wellness programs and other important employee benefits where needed. By helping your employees feel better about life priorities outside work, you are ensuring that they feel better about priorities inside the workplace. 
  • Support Working Parents: The last 18 months have been hell on working parents, faced with the twin challenges of conducting work at home while worrying about the health of their children. As they face the equally challenging anxieties of returning to the workplace and having their children return to school (or having school or child care disrupted by a new outbreak), employers need to be especially mindful. To cite just one example, employers can allow for flexible schedules that enable parents to drop off and pick up at school as needed — a substantial stress-reducer.
  • Listen and Respond: As never before, employers need to recommit to listening to employee concerns and feedback. Now is the time for open ears. Some employees really want to come back to the office, others may not; some may want vaccine and mask mandates, others may not. You will likely not be able to satisfy everyone, but listening and responding with empathy is the best path to greater commitment and retention. By the same token, employers need to state their return-to-workplace policies as clearly as possible, while also acknowledging that these plans may be altered because of changing circumstances.
  • Stay Flexible: A transition of this size can’t possibly take place overnight. Smart employers should continue to retain some of the elements of work- place flexibility they’ve had all year, even if the ultimate goal is a complete return to the office.

“While you may not be able to fully execute your original plan, you will be able to chart a path forward — with creativity, flexibility and consideration of employee needs at the forefront.”

By exercising patience and compassion, employers and employees can be nimble and resilient in the face of the Delta surge (and now Omicron), while ensuring continuity of business and customer service. After all, it’s likely that COVID has more variants up its sleeve, and that there will be other disruptions in the future. Having survived this, an organization can survive more.

While you may not be able to fully execute your original plan, you will be able to chart a path forward with creativity, flexibility and consideration of employee needs at the forefront. 

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