FAQs About Planning Workplace Reintegration Post Vaccine

Part 2 of the Series on Workplace Reintegration Post-Covid-19 Vaccine

Companies and organizations are preparing for employees returning to offices with workplace reintegration, thanks to Covid-19 vaccines making returning to work safe and possible. Yet there are many important questions to answer for employers. Unitonomy has asked experts to provide answers and advice to help everyone navigate the “new normal.” If you missed Part 1, make sure you read Dr. Brad Shuck’s breakdown of the 4 R’s of Reintegration: reset, restart, recalibrate, and reinvent.

Masked pedestrians waiting to cross the street is a perfect metaphor for workplace reintegration post Covid-19 vaccine.
Masked pedestrians waiting to cross the street.

How are employees feeling about returning to the workplace?

Consider how different the pandemic experience has been for different types of employees. Those that live alone felt lonely and isolated. Those with young children felt exasperated, stretched between work and childcare. Those with older children have become part-time teachers. As you plan workplace reintegration, start by acknowledging there’s no one-size fits all approach because different people are feeling different things based on their pandemic experience.

For most, a new normal emerged. Just as it was hard to adapt to working from home and dealing with the many curveballs of Covid-19 and social distancing, it will now be hard in 2021 adapting to an evolving post-vaccine world.
Many employees are ready to ditch the video conferencing. They’re itching to get back into the office because they are done with feeling lonely and isolated. Zoom fatigue set in around June.

On the other side of the equation are the more introverted who discovered a better way to work. Forget wasting time with commutes and in-person meetings. Remote work meant an increase in productivity and focus.

Let’s not forget the parents. 2021 and vaccines mean their kids are likely back to classrooms or daycare. While so much time with family has its merits, parents know that their productivity suffered.

Then there are the employees directly affected by the actual virus. Perhaps they got sick and suffered. Maybe they lost someone in their family. These employees might be suffering and talking about it openly, or keeping it to themselves.

Tension is brewing for teams where there are employees that are against the vaccine, or believe the Covid-19 is some sort of fabrication or conspiracy. The larger the company runs, the more likely they are going to have to navigate varying degrees of employee experiences. This delicate situation is exactly why planning for workplace reintegration is critical.

– Charley Miller, CEO of Unitonomy — the makers of OrgVitals.com

Will everyone in your workplace get vaccinated?
Will everyone in your workplace get vaccinated?

How should leaders refocus organizational culture and messaging during workplace reintegration?

The basics have not changed.  People still need to know you care about them and their success.  Start by making sure you understand where they are, how things are going for them and the people they care about (friends/family).  Everyone is going to be in a different place as we re-start.  Some people have not had any major impacts outside of those caused by quarantine or social distancing.  Others have lost loved ones or are in financial crisis (I also know people who had a great year financially in 2020).  As you understand where they are, you may need to find ways to help them – what if their kids are still out of school?  What if their partner has lost their job (and their income)?  What if they, personally, have increased anxiety as an outcome from COVID?  Further, if you are changing their work arrangements again (maybe going back into the office?!), be thoughtful about giving them time to adjust and ask how the new arrangement would impact them.

People want to know what to expect, communicating what you can now and being clear about what you don’t know (and when you will follow up, if only to say you still don’t know) will help.  Getting on a cadence for this is a best practice.

Make sure your team is clear regarding your expectations of them and how they are doing against these.  It is key to managing remote workers, but also important if you are all working together.

If you are asking everyone to be back in the office full time (or most of the time), be ready to discuss why that is necessary.  Some folks will prefer working from home and may want to maintain that arrangement.

– Martin Low, CEO of On Plane People Consulting

What should leaders be prioritizing when it comes to work culture during workplace reintegration?

Within reintegration we have such a unique opportunity to rebuild the work day. We can keep the things we loved about working from home and cull the traditions we had in the office that don’t work anymore. Don’t waste this opportunity by rushing back into the office with a “work as usual” mentality

Spend some time surveying / talking with employees on what they want to bring with them from work from home life and what they missed about office life.

You’ll likely find a pattern around unnecessary meetings — both prior to work from home life and during it. As a rule of thumb start reintegration with fewer meetings and add as the need presents themselves. Also, don’t be afraid to shuffle meeting agendas again. What worked in our home offices may not be the best fit for when we’re back to work.

– Kristen Mashburn, Founder of KPMashburn Company Culture Consulting

Workplace reintegration gets tricky when some employees refuse to get vaccinated.
Covid-19 vaccines will allow workplaces to reintegrate employees.

What policies need to be in place for those who opt out of taking the vaccine?

Now that at least two COVID-19 vaccines have received emergency use authorization in the U.S., private employers must decide whether to require employees to receive the vaccine as a condition of continued employment or being allowed back onto the worksite. Employers have a duty to provide a healthy and safe work environment for their employees, but is it their place to enforce mandatory vaccinations? The EEOC has confirmed that employers can make vaccination against COVID-19 mandatory for employees, but with some restrictions.  Vaccine refusal cannot, however, be politically motivated or a matter of personal preference. Whether not an employer decides to require vaccinations, all employers are encouraged to communicate a clear and concise policy to their employees. 

In the EEOC guidance on December 16, 2020, employees have two grounds to seek an exemption from mandatory vaccination: disability/medical condition as defined by the Americans with Disability Act; or a “sincerely held religious belief” as set forth in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  If an employee indicates either ground is the reason he or she cannot be vaccinated, the employer must work with the employee to seek reasonable accommodation, such as remote work. Employees who assert a serious medical condition prevents them from being vaccinated may be required to provide documentation of their condition from a health care professional. If the accommodation the employee seeks is not possible because it places undue hardship on the employer, the employer may exclude the employee from going to the workplace. Typical cases of “undue hardship” include situations in which the accommodation would compromise the health and safety of other employees or in which the accommodation is too costly to implement or logistically burdensome.

The EEOC guidelines are explicit cautioning employers that the inability to reasonably accommodate an employee does not automatically give the employer the right to fire her/him. There may be additional factors to consider, including but not limited to state law, union agreements, or employment contracts. Prior to terminating an employee for refusal to be vaccinated, employers are strongly encouraged to seek legal counsel and consult with human resources.

– Jennifer Wheatley, HR Affiliates (check out their great resources page for employers for Covid-19)

Mask dangling from rear view mirror as an employee commutes to work. Workplace reintegration means wearing masks in most cases.
The work commute now requires remembering the mask.

How can a company set up a work approach to balance remote and hybrid employees?

With the uncertainty that the year 2020 has brought to organizations across the globe, there is certainty that the year 2021 will continue promoting work on the remote spectrum, and that it is here to stay. As vaccinating against COVID-19 becomes more widespread, organizations that will integrate a distributed workforce model are likely to struggle to develop an approach that balances the dynamic between fully remote and hybrid (working both in-office and remotely) employees. Within this article, we outline the ways to sustain high rates of employee retention without jeopardizing daily organizational processes, in an effort to facilitate a smooth transition between work environments.

Location. Location. Location.

First and foremost, do your employees want to come back into the office? It’s important to understand the prevalence of employees that want to remain fully remote, and those that would like to take a hybrid approach. The administration of a simple survey throughout the different departments of your organization should determine the following:

• Location/Office accessibility – Who wants/needs to be in-office and why?
• Equipment needs – For both hybrid and remote employees, what supplies tangible (routers, desk chairs) to intangible (badge update, password change) do they need to continue performing their job well?
• Project/Staff timeline dependencies- If employees are in the middle of a critical project but need to migrate to the office, what are the blackout dates?
• Availability- Regardless of being hybrid or remote, team members will need to understand when their co-workers are available with this flexibility

Next, you’re going to want to take a look at your department’s KPIs (key performance indicators) and if applicable, their OKRs (objectives and key results). Since the transition, what has performance looked like? As with any change, a dip towards the beginning of the transition is to be expected, but if these metrics have been consistently low with your entire workforce, then that’s worth doing a little digging into (see Section 3). For those that have been able to be productive and prefer working from home, leadership should document these employees (along with the rest of the staff) to understand how intentional their inclusivity and collaboration initiatives will need to be when addressing populations on the remote spectrum.

Don’t open the floodgates!

After making the determination to have hybrid employees move back into the office, have relevant utilities organizations (gas, water, electric) perform a routine safety check to ensure the building is safe and ready for your employees. This does not mean that after the inspection, any employees that want to come back can just show up. Opening the floodgates is a sure way to wreak havoc on your critical back-to-office teams such as Security, IT and Facilities. These departments should be the first to have their employees return because they are integral to ensuring processes like equipment reinstallation, internet connectivity and campus accessibility are not impeded.

Set your sights on developing and effectively communicating the planning, execution and securing of your organizational support system around the workplace re-integration. Create a communication plan with a timeline you’re able to stick to around what to expect with employees coming back to the office and when.

Ready to sing Kumbaya? Not quite.

Woman working from home and sitting on her front step.
Woman working from home and sitting on her front step.

Now that your organization has completed the physical components of this office re-integration, it’s time to cultivate continued awareness on the impact of your newly minted hybrid and remote workforce. In order to build and improve operational efficiencies with a modernized workforce, reassessing what ’employee engagement’ means to your organization is necessary. Without understanding the motivating factors driving employee productivity, as well as how to viably measure them, this increases the likelihood of employee turnover and internal process delays. We recommend identifying what constructs are most conducive to workplace efficacy in your organization, then evaluating them to see what has and hasn’t changed since the re-integration.

In order to keep with the changes that have been implemented, it is the responsibility of the organization’s leadership team and employees to continuously support and reinforce these changes. Being intentional whether remote or in-office about your independent work time, team collaboration and communication with your fellow co-workers is a continued challenge remote populations face, but it doesn’t have to be. Booking off that time on your calendar to prevent interruptions while working independently is a great way to prevent your session from getting derailed- just make sure you communicate the hours you are unavailable for meetings to your team!

Understanding the drive for wide scale change is what keeps employees being seen as people, it’s creating more efficient ways of measuring performance and it’s providing livable employee wages regardless of location for essential equipment and services like home offices and childcare which ultimately balances the dynamic of employees both remote and in-office. Taking care of employee needs by listening to them, understanding what needs to change, and taking actionable steps to solidify that change for an organization’s future will create a thriving workplace for current and future generations.

We recommend this piece from Robin about “How to set up your workplace for remote and hybrid employees.

– Britt Gottschalk, ReVise Remote Work Consulting

How should leaders handle emotional fatigue in 2021?

My #1 tip for managing the emotional fatigue in 2021 for your team, is by handling the emotional fatigue that you, yourself, are feeling. Leaders will not have the emotional bandwidth otherwise. It’s like putting your own mask on before your child’s.

Don’t just tell people to take care of themselves. Show others how you are taking care of yourself. Share with your team that you’re using the free therapy that the company is offering. Take off for wellbeing days. Start a challenge for steps or mindfulness minutes — and as a leader, actually participate yourself.

Employees are likely to follow your lead.

– Kristen Mashburn, Founder of KPMashburn Company Culture Consulting

Workplace reintegration will be a hot topic until companies and employees find their balance in 2021. At some point, Covid-19 will be in the rear window and we’ll be able to appreciate how we all nobly adapted. So much was predicted about “The Future of Work.” Little did we know a pandemic would force new behaviors so drastically. As your organization plans its workplace reintegration, remember that talking and listening is half of the battle.

Still got questions?

Reach out to us with your workplace reintegration questions about reintegration and we’ll find an expert to answer. We might even publish another post. Just email charley.miller@unitonomy.com!

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