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How Employers Should Respond to the COVID-19 Delta Variant

published11 months ago
4 min read

For several months I’ve written extensively about what the post-COVID workplace experience would look like, focusing on topics like hybrid work, technology, the new office environment, and more. I know many of us hoped that we were through the worst of the pandemic, but recently things have taken a turn for the worse and it’s clear that this is no longer the case.

Over the past few weeks there’s been a swift resurgence in new COVID-19 cases, largely due to the highly contagious delta variant. According to the CDC, this variant is now responsible for 83.2% of novel coronavirus infections in the U.S. Right now more than 85,000 new cases are being reported per day, but experts predict that in August there will be as many as 140,000 to 300,000 cases a day in the U.S.

Faced with the recent surge, employers are having to rethink their return-to-work plans as well as their existing workplace policies. Although the approach will vary depending on your business, here are some broad ways that you can adapt in response to our current reality:

Delay reopening your offices

It’s true that many employees are looking forward to returning to the office at least part of the time, and companies are also eager to resume some version of “business as usual.” But if your organization can continue to sustain remote work arrangements, it may be advisable to do so.

Beyond the health reasons to delay reopening, there are legal considerations as well. One expert noted that in densely populated areas where public transportation is common, workers might protest over being required to commute back to work. Companies would potentially be putting themselves at risk of legal action for forcing people to endanger themselves.

So what is a good target date for reopening? It depends on the company, but Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and many others are now pushing back their return to the office plans until later in the fall or early 2022. But with so many unknowns around the spread of the delta variant, the reality is that these are moving targets and nearly all organizations acknowledge the uncertainty around their reopening plans.

Mandate or incentivize vaccination

A growing number of employers are instituting vaccine requirements for workers who either are required to be onsite or choose to go into an office. Twitter, Google, and Facebook will require employees to be vaccinated before coming into the office. Disney will also require vaccination, and many hospitals are starting to impose requirements for their staff. Meanwhile, President Biden recently ordered federal workers to get vaccinated or submit to regular testing.

For some businesses, offering incentives may be key to getting reluctant employees to get vaccinated. Companies like Walmart, Target, and Dollar General pay workers bonuses for vaccinating, and now the Biden administration is urging states to offer $100 payments to newly vaccinated residents. The president also announced that the federal government would fully reimburse small and medium businesses who provided paid time off for their employees to get vaccinated.

Encourage frequent testing

Breakthrough cases among vaccinated individuals are extremely rare, accounting for less than 1% of all cases. However, people who are vaccinated are still capable of transmitting the virus to others if they o do get sick. And since vaccinated individuals are often asymptomatic, they’re that much more likely to unknowingly put others’ lives at risk.

With this in mind, employers should consider conducting routine testing even among asymptomatic workers, especially in workplaces where vaccination isn’t a requirement. The CDC offers guidance on testing in the workplace, including the different types of testing, how often to test, and whether to test all workers or only those who will be in close quarters with other staff.

Employers will also need to ensure their testing strategies comply with relevant state and local guidelines, which vary widely. And they’ll need to be transparent with employees about when they’ll be tested, what will happen if they test positive (including whether any time off will be covered by the company), and the consequences they’ll face if they refuse to submit to testing.

Reinstitute mask requirements

In late July, the CDC reversed its guidance on mask-wearing, recommending that fully vaccinated people begin wearing masks indoors again in communities with substantial virus spread. Many companies have been quick to adjust their policies in response, especially retailers whose employees cannot work remotely and where there is a high level of exposure risk.

Apple, Kroger, Walmart, and McDonald’s are just a few of the companies reinstating mask requirements for workers in high-risk areas. Meanwhile, Target, Home Depot, and Lowe's are taking their precautions a step further and requiring masks for all employees, regardless of the risk level in their communities.

It will certainly be difficult for employers to help their people navigate this ever-changing landscape. But despite the challenges they may face, businesses need to stay abreast of their area’s risk of transmission and adjust their policies accordingly. While OSHA has not yet updated its guidance on mask-wearing, it likely will — and employers that violate these standards will be faced with fines, legal costs, and other serious consequences.

Continue to build safety into your workplace

Even if you plan on delaying your reopening, you should prepare your offices now to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission when workers eventually return. Reduced building and room occupancy is key, which can be accomplished via hybrid work arrangements, staggered shifts, or encouraging the use of satellite offices. Regular cleaning is also critical, as well as touchless features like faucets, elevators, food ordering, and more.

Improved ventilation can also decrease transmission, and it doesn’t always require expensive renovations. And of course, if your offices are located in a part of the world where the weather is favorable, it’s a great idea to create outdoor workspaces. At its Silicon Valley headquarters, Google has converted a parking lot and lawn area into “Camp Charleston” — a fenced-in mix of grass and wooden deck flooring about the size of four tennis courts with Wi-Fi throughout.

Above all — be ready to adapt, and be transparent with your people

From what we know about the delta variant, it could be several months before it completely burns out. As difficult as it may be, employers have no choice but to be flexible and adaptable in the face of such uncertainly. But while we await the outcomes of this current surge, there are steps you can take to minimize the risk of transmission among your staff.

If your workers are required to be onsite, then vaccination, testing, mask requirements, and other safety practices will be key. If your employees can continue to work remotely, consider delaying the reopening of your offices. And no matter what approach you take, keeping the lines of communication open with your workforce will be imperative for their morale and engagement during this challenging time.