Many offices had planned to return to work this fall, but the surge in COVID-19 infections due to the Delta variant is forcing many organizations to consider delaying. Experts offer advice on how to factor Delta into your reopening plans.
In late spring, the widespread availability of the COVID-19 vaccine and downward trends in infections caused many associations working remotely to target a September date to return to their offices. In recent weeks, however, the Delta variant spiked infection levels and deaths, and associations are wondering how to factor this into their return-to-office plans.
“The September return was about the virus appearing to slide off,” said Bob Mellinger, president and founder of business continuity firm Attainium. “People thought this would be the tail, but now it’s coming back. This is a more dangerous variant, a more contagious variant. Everybody I’ve talked to said Delta is impacting their plans.”
When figuring out how Delta should affect your plans, Mellinger suggested asking one question.
“My big question to everyone is, ‘Why?’” Mellinger said. “What are your reasons for needing to go back? If they balance against the risks of being there, then do it. If they don’t, then I’ll ask again: why?”
Associations tend to be risk-averse, and for those who have successfully teleworked, the prospect of returning to the office and having a breakout is worrisome, Mellinger noted.
“One person comes in, gives the virus to somebody else, and they turn around and give it to somebody else, and it eventually reaches someone who is either not vaccinated or immunocompromised,” he said. “I could imagine that is not something most association execs want on their plate: to try to deal with what happens if this goes downstream.”
Many associations Mellinger spoke with are pushing back plans to return to the office, especially in cities where workers are required to wear masks and socially distance to the point that total in-office capacity is limited.
If an organization does delay its reopening, it’s not critical to pick a new opening date. While some prefer definitive answers, Mellinger is seeing most associations approach this very fluidly.
“I’m not seeing definitive plans,” he said. “What I’m seeing is the flip of that: ‘We’ll let you know when we come to terms with what is going on.’ I see people evaluating it and saying: ‘We will give you sufficient notice once we’ve unraveled how to deal with this.’”
He added that organizations need to be prepared to make adjustments as new concerns arise. “Remember, it’s not all about Delta; Delta is just in the news,” Mellinger said. “Months from now, we may be talking about something else, and we need to be able to evaluate those risks.”
A Need to Go Back
Mellinger acknowledged that some organizations may have a great answer to the question of why they need to go back. If they do, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Some associations have opened buildings only to staff that need to use them and limited the number of staff based on current social-distancing mandates.
If all staff need to come back, encourage vaccination and consider whether to mandate it.
“I would evaluate a vaccine mandate,” Mellinger said, noting the evaluation would include seeking legal advice about the viability of vaccine mandates in your jurisdiction and its impact on staffing. “If you say, the only people who are allowed back in the office have to be vaccinated, you have to ask: Is there some human resource risk to that? Is there a knowledge base that you will lose?”
James Bailey, Ph.D., a professor at George Washington University specializing in organizational culture and leadership, noted that bringing employees back after extended remote work can lead to pushback. Bailey recommends using organizational change strategies to help make the transition smoother.
“Those who are resisting need to be able to express their discontent openly,” Bailey said. “If they don’t, then they feel censored, and if they feel censored, they become martyrs, and if they become martyrs, they will live forever.”
The goal is to have a feel of togetherness, not discontent. To do this, organizations must effectively explain why returning is necessary, highlighting how it benefits the organization and staff. “Have your best and most respectful arguments at hand as to why this is a win-win, as opposed to a win-lose,” Bailey said.
For those going back, Mellinger said, “Follow the science. Do all of the current best practices related to safety.”
Bailey agreed, noting that safety is crucial to staff support. “No one wants to hear: ‘It’s not a problem. Come on back,’” Bailey added. “Additional safety precautions are necessary.”
How has the Delta variant changed your return-to-office plans? Share in the comments.