Light Switch or Dimmer? - A Phased Approach for Return to Work


Why companies are focused on gradually increasing physical occupancy rather than a one-time approach

As COVID-19 vaccines start to be administered, does this mean the ushering of employees back to workplaces will start happening all at once? Not so fast.

While many now describe being able to see a light at the end of this long pandemic “tunnel,” it will take time to return to something normal. 

Three factors in particular affect a rapid and complete return to the office.

First, getting a majority of people vaccinated will take time. Some projections identify summer 2021 as a milestone for mass protection. The percent of the population that is vaccinated will increase steadily but not reach a critical threshold until mid-year.

Second, there are many questions still to be answered. Can a vaccinated person still spread the virus? Will vaccines protect against mutated forms of the virus? How long will a vaccinated person be protected from the virus? Not knowing many of these things favors a slow ramp for implementing office re-openings.

Third, most employers will likely have a mix of employees. Some will have been vaccinated. Some may never agree to vaccination. Some will still be waiting to be vaccinated. Organizations will need to manage such heterogeneous environments adeptly. Should vaccinations be required for any returning employee? What about guests, such as customers, prospective customers, partners and vendors?

The beginning of vaccinations does not present an instant panacea to office re-openings. At the same time, it does not necessarily mean that companies need to wait until everyone is vaccinated. There is a middle ground, and office re-openings can be phased rather than binary. Bringing employees back to offices also requires building trust and confidence, something that will need to be earned, perhaps gradually.

Facebook, one of the largest firms driving the future of work narrative recently announced it would not require employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine before returning to the office according to a USA Today article on December 10, 2020. This might lead to employees choosing their own timeframe for a return to the office. Some will jump at the chance. Those who are vaccinated will likely be more willing to return. Others will be stifled by fear. Some will be reluctant based on their own health conditions or those of their family.

According to recent insights on returning to the workplace offered on the PwC website, “It may make sense to allow people in jobs with little drop-off in productivity to continue to work remotely for a period of time to reduce onsite headcount and lessen the risk to employee health.”

The Pew Research Center says 42 percent of adults aged 18 to 49 working from home can't stay motivated, according to its How the Coronavirus Outbreak Has – and Hasn’t – Changed the Way Americans Work report from December 2020. Bob Sulentic, CBRE Group CEO and President estimated that more than 80 percent of office space occupancy will return after the pandemic in an interview on Power Lunch on CNBC. So, as companies in various industries grapple with how to return to the office, here are three things companies should consider about choosing to return in a phased approach – and why it makes sense:

  • Not everyone gets the vaccine at the same time

While health care workers and nursing home residents will be the first to receive the vaccine, the rest of the public isn’t going to be vaccinated all at the same time. A staggered scheduling approach maintaining lower occupancy limits could help ease employee tensions related to who and who is not vaccinated.

  • Employees might not be comfortable going into an office with people that are not vaccinated

While the debate on if employers can force employees to get vaccinated is still technically up for debate, according to Density a “phased approach reduces the risk of the worst-case scenario in which a contagious employee returns to the office and passes the illness to others.” Not having all employees show up at the same time can help with this.

  • Employers are looked upon favorability when they consider employee health and work-life balance

By incorporating a phased return, employees may feel as though the organization they work for is supporting their physical health and well-being. Additionally, erring on the side of caution can help promote work-life balance taking into consideration family matters such as children who are still being homeschooled, in addition to mental health matters, according to the American Psychological Association through its Committee on Women in Psychology.

As employers consider all the implications of a phased approach for returning to the workplace, understanding in-office transmission risk of COVID-19 is paramount to keeping the offices open and safe. Many factors need to be considered in determining when an office is ready to accommodate employees, how many and what changes need to be implemented. In addition, conditions are dynamic, so ongoing monitoring and assessment is needed to know what adjustments to make.

Building employee confidence as you plan your return to the office, supplemented with scientific, fact-based analysis for considering all associated disease risk helps companies formulate effective return to work plans. Offering a phased approach will help mitigate risk and promote trust.

The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

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