Where Do We Go from Here?

Some things to consider when returning to an office environment

By Andrew C. Jackson

I’ve never been so glad to see the first signs of spring here in Texas – the Bradford Pear trees are blooming, and the Redbuds are showing up. I’m even trying to embrace the spring allergies and weeds – because this year, the end of winter coincides with the biggest vaccination campaign in history and hopefully, the beginning of the end of the global pandemic.

So where do we go from here with regard to where and how we work?  Work-from-home has been a good fit for some jobs and businesses, but not others. Some of your staff prefer working remotely, while others miss their coworkers and feel more productive working outside the home. With millions already vaccinated and the prospect of reaching herd immunity in the U.S. by summer, here are some potential issues to consider as we return employees to an office setting.

The Need to Protect Employee Rights

Organizations will need to determine what they should and should not do and say to employees about vaccines. For personal reasons, some percentage of employees will refuse or wait to get vaccinated. Management teams will need to outline their policies on what constitutes “reasonable accommodations” for unvaccinated employees. While it may be fine to ask employees to provide proof of vaccination, discussions about why an employee has not been vaccinated may be sensitive, involving private medical information, disability status or religious beliefs. In addition, if an employee exposes other coworkers to COVID-19 in a work setting, employers will have to notify exposed employees without naming names to ensure medical privacy. Every effort should be made to protect employees’ privacy, rights and safety while treating everyone fairly.

Protecting Corporate Culture

Many of us have been worried about the morale and productivity of our staff while working from home but going back to the office will bring a new set of concerns. For example, even though employers are allowed to issue a vaccine mandate for anyone who works onsite or visits a client, doing so has the potential of damaging morale. Some have floated the idea of separating vaccinated and non-vaccinated employees, but this could create a divisive atmosphere. If at any point workers feel that the company is out of sync with current mask-wearing and social distancing norms, morale and productivity could suffer. To ensure employees feel both respected and safe, business leaders will need to react quickly to evolving guidance and employee concerns. Both mask-wearing and vaccination tracking are everchanging “hot potatoes!”

Keeping External Relationships Strong

Moving forward, clients and external business partners may be on different pages regarding travel, vaccines and in-person meetings. Flexibility and open communications will be needed to strengthen these relationships. For example, if you hold a client conference or user group meeting, you may have to offer both in-person and virtual options from now on. And after saving money and time on travel last year, many organizations will continue to opt for virtual meetings in the future.

In the end, returning to the office and in-person meetings will depend on the needs of each organization and its people. The key for business leaders will be to treat employees and associates fairly and with understanding. While there will be challenges, it’s an opportunity to create a win-win for everyone.