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Returning to work amidst the Delta variant

What to consider.

The popular phrase, “it doesn’t happen overnight” proved to be untrue when the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) hit the United States, disrupting daily life in a way few could have anticipated.

Many companies faced the hard decision to either keep their employees on the frontlines, furlough a portion of their workforce, or shut their doors completely — forcing their employees to file for unemployment. The lucky ones were able to transition to a completely remote workplace, which allowed them to maintain normal business operations while keeping their employees safe and helping reduce the spread of the virus. 

In the spring and early summer of 2021, after the introduction of several vaccines for COVID-19 and with case numbers getting lower by the day, it probably seemed like a good time to develop a plan to return employees to the office if you hadn’t already.

Then came the highly contagious Delta variant, which caused case numbers to spike among people who hadn’t yet received the vaccine.

With so much uncertainty around when we’ll reach herd immunity for COVID-19, you’re probably wondering if you need to reconsider those return-to-office plans you spent the last several months working on. Unsurprisingly, the answer is not one-size-fits-all.

As a workplace that has decided to delay returning our employees to the office until further notice, here’s our take.

What's the deal with Delta?

Over the course of the pandemic, SARS-COV-2 has mutated several times as it continues to spread around the world. The latest mutation, which is now the main source of infection in the United States, is known as the Delta variant.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention External Link (CDC), the Delta variant is two times more infectious than previous variants and has spread rapidly amongst unvaccinated populations. Vaccinated individuals can still catch and spread the virus to others, but breakthrough cases are still rare. To help reduce the spread of this particular variant, the CDC recommends both doses of the vaccine — which is highly effective in preventing severe cases and hospitalization — in addition to other preventive measures previously used, including wearing masks indoors and maintaining proper social distance.

  1. Iron out the unknowns

  2. Before bringing your workforce back into the office, carefully consider and discuss the following questions with your leadership:

    • What is the current rate of transmission in your area? How much of the local population is vaccinated?
    • What percentage of your workforce has been vaccinated against COVID-19? Do you plan on requiring proof of vaccination External Link to return to work?
    • How have your employees responded to working remotely? Are they eager to come back External Link to the office or are they concerned about their health External Link and safety?
    • Have you considered additional protective measures for employees at higher risk (i.e., employees with diabetes, cancer, autoimmune disease or high blood pressure)? Will you require those employees to work in the office or can they continue to work remotely? 
    • Is your workplace designed to accommodate physical distancing standards? Are your employees’ desks more than six feet apart? How else will you enforce social distancing at your workplace?
    • Will you be instructing your employees to use facial coverings?
    • How do you plan to keep your workplace clean and disinfected on a regular basis?
    • What is your plan if one or more of your employees become infected with COVID-19?
    • Are you prepared to quickly modify practices and policies based on constantly changing guidance? 

    Grab your FREE Return-to-Work Guide PDF File

  3. Rethink your return-to-work plan

  4. At this point in the pandemic, you've probably developed at least a basic idea or plan on how to get your employees back into the office. Now, it's probably time to rethink it External Link. While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has provided comprehensive guidance External Link to help you mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in your workplace, you'll also want to heavily consider your employees' attitudes External Link about coming back to work.

    The gap between your expectations and your employees' may be wider than you thought. A recent poll conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers External Link revealed that while more than half of employees would like to work remotely at least three days a week after the pandemic, 68 percent of executives want at least three days a week of in-person work to maintain good company culture.

    From your employees' perspective, the pandemic opened up a world of possibilities for full-time remote work. In fact, the majority of American workers who can do their work effectively while working full-time from home have said they'd be willing to take a 5 percent pay cut External Link to continue doing so.

    It's important to remember that one size does not fit all here. While newer hires might want to be in the office several days a week to connect with coworkers, veteran employees may have gotten into a good rhythm working remotely and might choose to pursue different opportunities External Link if required to come back to the office. The best way to gauge your employees' comfort level and thoughts about returning to the office is simple: just ask them.

Going back to the office

If you've taken into account employee feedback, local transmission numbers and cases, and the unknowns of the Delta variant as the weather turns cooler, here are general steps to take if you choose to bring your employees back into the office:

  1. Make physical changes to your office space. If your workspace isn’t already set up to meet the physical and social distancing requirements for reopening, here are a few things you may need to consider:
    • Ensuring workstations are at least six feet apart
    • Determining which public or common areas will have capacity restrictions or will remain closed altogether
    • Placing floor markings to ensure staff maintain appropriate distance.
    • Adding additional handwashing or sanitizing stations
    • Placing reminders to practice basic hygiene (regular handwashing, proper coughing and sneezing etiquette, and correct paper towel/tissue disposal) in bathrooms and other common areas
    • If possible, upgrade ventilation systems External Link to help reduce the spread of airborne virus particles.
  2. Establish stringent guidelines and procedures. Now that dealing with COVID-19 has become our new normal, your employees expect that you will help keep them safe. In addition to making physical changes to your workplace, the following policies and guidelines may help you reduce transmission and keep your employees healthy:
    • Restricting use of shared items
    • Requiring daily health checks, including temperature readings
    • Strongly encouraging employees who are sick to stay home and implementing flexible time-off policies
    • Limiting visitors to the building
    • Enforcing social distancing outside of the office
    • Developing a plan for when cases spike again or an employee tests positive
    • Updating office cleaning protocols External Link to account for additional disinfecting
  3. Decide who is going to come back to the office and when. Many companies are adopting a phased return-to-work strategy or a hybrid work model, starting with employees who need to physically be on-site to perform their job duties. Then, you can phase in staff who have been able to work remotely. As an additional measure of protection, you can also stagger work hours so that your office is never at full capacity at one time. Before you invite any employees back to the office, it’s crucial that you instruct all staff on their responsibilities related to the new procedures and guidelines. This will help keep your workplace running smoothly even in times of uncertainty.
  4. Create open lines of communication. Now more than ever, your employees are looking to you to be an effective leader helping them through these unprecedented changes to daily life. Make sure you are available to listen to and answer their questions and concerns about changes to your work environment. Treat them with kindness and compassion as they navigate the difficult decision to return to work, arrange for alternate childcare, and protect their loved ones.

We’re here to help

As you navigate uncharted waters in your business, you can count on Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield to be by your side every step of the way. Here at Wellmark, we know your business and have insights on your employees that you may not have in-house. Our team has the tools and resources, tips and tricks, and health-specific information needed to keep your employees happy, healthy and engaged when they return to work.

Questions? Contact your authorized Wellmark account representative or email us at Send Email.

Don't forget your FREE Return-to-Work Guide PDF File

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