What the COVID-19 vaccine rollout means for returning to the workplace

Experts weigh in on whether being vaccinated will make a difference in the number of employees who continue to work remotely, and what policies companies may put in place.

COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine

Image: iStock.com/Udom Pinyo

Conversations about returning to work and what policies to put in place are starting between employers and employees as COVID-19 vaccine rollouts continue. But some HR experts said it's still a little soon for companies to make concrete decisions about their plans.

Questions about whether to require proof of vaccination, for example, are tricky, "and there's no right or wrong answer in what organizations should do,'' said Elisabeth Joyce, vice president of advisory in Gartner's HR practice. "We're helping people think through choices rather than give them answers. Because we don't know. We've never played this game before, and the best way we can prepare ourselves is to think through all the considerations."

Joyce said she has told clients to "asterisk and underline 'We reserve the right to change our minds based on the information we have available,'" since new vaccine announcements are frequent.

Overwhelmingly, organizations plan to remain flexible in their work from home policies. Earlier this week, Salesforce announced a work-from-anywhere model, based on employee feedback. And 90% of HR leaders said they plan to allow employees to continue working remotely at least part time even after the COVID-19 vaccine is adopted, according to a December 2020 Gartner survey.

SEE: COVID-19 workplace policy (TechRepublic Premium)

And nearly 43% of companies said they would keep most of their employees working at home even after the pandemic passes, according to a June 2020 survey of HR executives at companies of various sizes and industries nationwide by executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.  

Additional precautions are being implemented to make the environment a safe one. Nearly all of the survey respondents (96%) said they will limit the number of workers on site, the survey said.

Until the vaccine rollout is more accelerated, however, organizations are not setting any hard-and-fast rules, observed Alla Valente, a senior analyst at Forrester.

"To return to work [employers] have to see the … hospitalization and infection rates coming down," Valente said. Another consideration is that "for much of the country, schools are still blended or virtual so there isn't a reliable childcare option."

The spread of new variant strains of the virus is also making companies "more mindful about the reopening process," she added. "There's still so many unknowns."

The return to work timeline is going to depend on the vaccine supply chain, Valente pointed out. "Even if more vaccines get distributed, without gloves, syringes, and PPE needed to administer vaccines, if that supply doesn't match the amount of vaccine, it can't be distributed."

Most latex gloves are made outside the country, she added.

As to whether companies will require proof of vaccination when employees do come back to the workplace, Valente said they will have to consider several factors, not the least of which is whether they should follow state or federal guidelines.

"You have the federal EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] that says yes, employers can mandate vaccinations for in-person employment, but then you have states saying, 'Not so fast,'" and some have proposed legislation "that loosens that,'' Valente said. "So if you're a company, do you follow state or federal regulations?"

No one wants to be out of compliance or be so heavy-handed that they open themselves up to liability, she said.

Valente predicts more companies will "err on the side of caution, versus require" vaccinations.

She further noted that "just because we have vaccines and if they're being distributed, that doesn't mean this crisis is solved. Companies are still going to have to maintain specific pandemic protocols,'' including having employees continue to wear masks and social distance.

The policies companies are mulling

The Challenger survey found that mask requirements will be nearly universal; almost 93% of companies said they will provide and/or require workers to wear masks. And masks will not be limited to just workers: almost 72% of companies said they will provide and/or require visitors to wear masks, the company said.

In terms of other policies, the same number of companies also said they will be limiting or prohibiting gatherings in shared spaces, such as conference rooms, break rooms, lunchrooms, and bathrooms.

The same percentage also said they would be maintaining social distancing protocols, with fewer people in workspaces and not allowing workers to come within six feet of each other, the Challenger survey said. And the same percentage of survey respondents planned to provide sanitizing products.

 Only 14% of companies in the Challenger survey said they would be providing and/or requiring workers to wear gloves.

Among other precautions planned, 89% of companies said they would conduct regular deep-cleaning of all workstations/worksites, and 82% would limit or exclude visitors.

Elevator use will be limited for 57% of companies and the same number said they will take the temperature of workers when they arrive at work and will survey workers to see if they have had any risk of exposure.

SEE: Oracle introduces post-pandemic protection and decision-making tool for HR teams (TechRepublic)

The company perspective

IBM, which operates in more than 170 countries, has had upwards of 200 offices and labs open back up since last year for "waves of employees to return,'' a company spokesperson said. Some offices have also had to re-close when outbreaks have occurred.

The vaccines "are powerful tools to curb COVID," said Joanna Daly, vice president of HR and corporate health and safety. "We told our employees last year that we don't have plans to directly administer vaccines at this time—or require them to return as offices reopen. We see our role as educating employees and encouraging them to pay attention to vaccine eligibility in their community and discuss with their healthcare provider as soon as they become eligible for a vaccine."

IBM will not require vaccines to return to the workplace, Daly said. However, employees are required to complete training on protocols, in accordance with its "Return to Workplace playbook," which includes a "daily attestation of health," before coming into an office.

The playbook includes information covering everything from community case thresholds and government lifting of restrictions for a phased return to mandatory masks at work, case management, and air-handling requirements, Daly said.

"Our local health and safety teams continuously monitor community conditions to determine if and when a workplace may need to close again for a period of time,'' she said.

The "radical flexibility" approach

Employers can and should encourage employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, but in most industries should not mandate it, said Debra Friedman, a labor and employment attorney with the law firm Cozen O'Connor. "Whether an employer encourages or mandates the vaccine [they] must provide reasonable accommodations to employees who refuse to be vaccinated for medical or religious reasons."  

To incentivize employees to get vaccinated and make it easier for them to do so, Friedman suggested that employers offer employees paid time off to go during working hours or offer transportation to vaccine sites.   

But echoing Valente, Friedman added: "Employers must be mindful that access to the vaccine varies widely by state, and by locality, both in terms of who is eligible and the available supply. Accordingly, at this point, employers cannot set deadlines for when they expect or encourage employees to be vaccinated." 

Gartner's Joyce said all of these questions will be reevaluated sometime in the third quarter of 2021. In the meantime, both she and Valente said the vaccine rollout is not impacting companies' return-to-work strategies or timeframes.

"Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? It's anyone's guess," Valente said.

For now, Joyce said, companies should offer "radical flexibility and working from wherever works for you." 

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By Esther Shein

Esther Shein is a longtime freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in several online and print publications. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief of Datamation, a managing editor at BYTE, and a senior writer at eWeek (formerly PC Week)...