Leaders of companies in the United States and many other parts of the world are breathing a sigh of relief as the Omicron BA.1 surge is in the past with higher community immunity, new effective treatments, and plentiful tests and vaccines. But with the Omicron BA.2 strain and its descendants becoming dominant and immunity from infections and vaccinations waning, the pandemic is not over and companies must be prepared for whatever the pandemic throws at them next. This article outlines four actions leaders can take now to increase the safety of their employees and decrease business disruption in the event of future community outbreaks.
The Pandemic Isn’t Over
Cases of Covid-19 rose steeply in Europe in March, are still high in parts of Asia and North America, and U.S. officials are warning of a fall surge. Meanwhile, the last country with a zero-tolerance policy against the coronavirus, China, is struggling to contain the virus. Beyond this situation, there are reasons to fear there will continue to be future outbreaks or waves of Covid-19. The SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19, can spread from humans to mammals and back, driving the virus to mutate in ways difficult to anticipate. More than 5.2 million refugees from the war on the Ukraine will increase global risk as refugees have reduced access to tests, vaccines, and the ability to quarantine or isolate. Simultaneously, waning immunity against the coronavirus or variants that don’t respond to widely-used vaccines will make transmission more likely.
After more than two years of Covid-19 and its variants, most of us have been beset by pandemic fatigue. This includes business executives who want and need to focus their skills and activities on business-critical areas and spend less thought, time, and energy on the pandemic. But the answer isn’t to ignore the pandemic; it is to have a system in place to handle it. It should include these components.
1. Reduce restrictions as the situation allows.
With the current low rates of community Covid-19 transmission in most of the United States, employers have been removing pandemic precautions in a manner that balances safety while allowing employees freedom to interact and be optimally productive. Given lower current risk of infection, many companies are bringing their remote employees back to the workplace, and most have removed mask mandates.
Even as restrictions decrease, employers should maintain certain baseline safety practices such as encouraging employees to get appropriately vaccinated or boosted and stay home if they are ill, optimizing indoor air quality, and maintaining a notification system for workplace exposures. Companies can adjust any additional protective measures based on updated local, state, or federal guidance, where required or prudent.
Indoor masking should continue to be an option for everyone, even if the local public health guidance does not require it. Managers should not assume anything about an individual if they choose to wear a mask. Encouraging employees to protect themselves will support their health today and prevent future disruptions due to illness.
2. Plan for another surge or outbreak now.
A new coronavirus strain can travel around the world in less than a day, so companies need protocols that will protect their businesses against future surges. Employers have a unique opportunity now, while transmission is low, to apply the hard-learned lessons of the last two years to develop plans that meet this moment of the pandemic.
There are several key ingredients to create a successful response. A good place to start is to choose metrics and thresholds that would trigger changes in the company’s Covid-19 safety protocol. Using factors such as community transmission rates, wastewater surveillance, hospital capacity, test positivity rates, variant infectivity, and vaccination rates, businesses can set specific triggers for when a different response is warranted.
Companies must also choose which of their locations to monitor. Many businesses should limit monitoring to sites with many employees and readily available data. In some instances, companies may choose to assess the risk of where employees live rather than the worksite itself. The key is to choose site(s) that have a large part of the workforce or where business disruption needs to be minimized.
Most interventions — such as mask wearing, educating employees about the effectiveness of different types of masks, physical distancing, Covid-19 testing, and vaccination requirements — can be flexed up or down. However, by making changes too frequently, organizations run the risk of creating confusion among employees as to which policies are currently in effect. A predetermined, balanced approach will allow organizations to respond promptly to developments with a minimum amount of new decision-making. Organizations that create such streamlined plans will have an advantage over their competitors who will be distracted from their core business as they reactively design a response to every turn in the pandemic.
3. Embrace remote and hybrid work.
Many businesses continue to offer the option to work remotely and realize that this flexibility benefits both them and their employees. This is most important for unvaccinated or high-risk individuals, such as those who are immunosuppressed. Employers can plan accordingly by having enhanced guidance for onsite unvaccinated or non-immune employees and asking them to continue to work remotely, requiring indoor masking, or performing surveillance testing.
Companies have found many ways to foster community and communication among their employees, despite hybrid or remote work arrangements. Some organizations encourage in-office time on certain days of the week or promote specific events or all-staff meetings that build community while still limiting overall risk of transmission. Organizations that continue to facilitate flexible work arrangements will be better able to attract and retain employees because workers now look for companies that can be adaptable and create stability during these challenging times.
4. Effectively communicate pandemic plans.
The very real possibility of future surges or localized outbreaks makes ongoing communication with employees important even when community case rates are low.
Employees believe that their employers have been successful at keeping them safe throughout the pandemic, according to a survey we conducted this winter. What is more, the employees who reported that their employers kept them safe at the workplace were more engaged, more productive, and less likely to leave. At the same time, some employees may feel that reinstituting pandemic safety measures are not needed, which makes active communication and setting employee expectations from managers and leaders critically important.
Employers can offer regular updates on the company’s plan to support safety even as they acknowledge that fewer measures are needed while community case rates are low. These communications should be routine and spaced out according to the local circumstances. Routine communication will enable a faster company-wide response when/if circumstances change.
It can take leaders years to build credibility and trust among employees, and that trust can erode in a matter of days or weeks. Communicating a well-designed pandemic safety plan in a clear and forthright manner is an important step toward maintaining the trust and resilience of employees to handle even greater challenges tomorrow.
Companies can take advantage of this unique moment, when risks are low but the memory of the Omicron wave is still fresh, to create a system and protocols that will address any future pandemic risk. This will allow employers to concentrate on the economic and geopolitical challenges ahead. Through proactive and flexible planning, businesses can create a competitive advantage that will give them an edge, no matter what happens next.