Article: COVID-19 vaccination and return-to-office

Employee Relations

COVID-19 vaccination and return-to-office

Employee morale lies right at the crux of organizational productivity and success. Recognizing this, smart organizations are taking a slew of measures to reassure employees.
COVID-19 vaccination and return-to-office

The second wave of Covid-19 has exacerbated the impact on health disrupting sentiments across the board. It has put businesses in crisis, eroding the initial gains they made on the economic front over the last few months following the first wave of the pandemic. 

According to the latest quarterly survey by FICCI, business confidence of Indian companies dipped to its lowest to 51.5 in three quarters in May after posting a decadal high of 74.2 in the previous survey as the second wave of the pandemic hit the country. This dip was led by an overall decline in the optimism levels of the participating companies regarding current conditions as well as expectations.

COVID-19 has been hard on employees, ratcheting up tension in organizations. As the pandemic raged on, organizations increasingly faced instances of employees refusing to come to work,  out of fear of contracting coronavirus and bringing it home to their families. There was anxiety due to feelings of grief triggered by the sudden loss of loved ones to the virus, struggle to arrange basic medical supplies, dearth of credible information on critical Covid resources and the broader economic hardship that lay ahead. 

Employee morale lies right at the crux of organizational productivity and success. Recognizing this, smart organizations are taking a slew of measures to reassure employees. These initiatives range from providing periodic updates and credible information on the situation, special allowances, additional leaves, mental health support, and insurance cover, among others. 

Vaccine brings new optimism for the Indian economy amidst decreasing incidence of Covid-19. It provides hope for a path out of the COVID-19 pandemic and bodes well for economic recovery. Consequently, talks of offices planning to open their doors again and shift remote employees back into the workplace have started to gain momentum.

It may be however still too early to speak of the end of our woes as uncertainties and challenges remain. We are nowhere close to declaring ourselves a Covid-free country as the vaccine programme remains abysmally slow which means that the country could remain vulnerable to further waves of COVID-19. 

Further complicating things is the fact that with the spread of new variants, the level of vaccination required to achieve herd immunity still surpasses the share of people who have received the vaccine. Likewise, the status of vaccine rollout varies significantly by geography, with different phasing and eligibility criteria. Moreover, there is uncertainty regarding the emergence of new SARS-CoV-2 variants and implications for the efficacy of current vaccines.

Given these uncertainties, it is incumbent upon employers to support COVID-19-vaccine adoption by making vaccination as accessible and affordable to employees as possible. Towards this, they should work towards encouraging COVID-19-vaccine adoption among employees and provide all the support that they might need in this direction. 

Over time, companies may also want to integrate vaccination planning and action with broader efforts to protect the workforce and return to work safely. In this direction, employers would need to develop a plan to operationally manage variability in vaccination status across the workforce. In addition, they should contemplate and set up a way to support continued vaccination, as relevant—for example, booster shots for new variants. Beyond supporting vaccination adoption, employers should also consider evaluating in-person health protocols, meeting and collaboration norms, changes to work-from-home setup and protocols, and travel policies.

India Inc is increasingly pursuing a set of actions that supports Covid-19 vaccine adoption among employees.  Efforts are being made by employers to bear the cost burden to vaccinate employees and their dependents. This is in addition to vaccinating business partners and community members in a bid to bring back normalcy in operations over the next several months and accelerate the path to societal and economic recovery. 

Organizations have put in place the policy framework that works as the guiding force and brings seamlessness in decision-making thereby ensuring business continuity in pandemic times. Companies have invested in requisite technology and tools to facilitate work from home even for business-critical functions. According to Gartner, Information Technology (IT) spending in India is likely to touch $93 billion in 2021 — an increase of 7.3% from 2020 due to the pandemic accelerating digitization and Information Technology (IT) spending in the country.

Health authorities are warning of a possible third wave of Covid-19 infections by the end of this year. This wave is predicted to be stronger and more severe on the younger population in comparison to the second wave. 

Things, however, may be different this time. There is a strong belief that a significantly lower number of people will be susceptible to the virus when the third wave hits us as a large population infected by the novel coronavirus in the first and second wave, unconfirmed infections that were never reported, and vaccination would induce mass immunity against the virus. 

There is also a distinct possibility that gene mutations in the virus can cause the virus to escape the immune responses developed in the already infected people or those vaccinated. This makes it imperative for organizations to weigh multiple options ranging from hyperlocal workplaces to hot desking while working on strategies to get ready for a post-pandemic workplace.  

All of us want things to go back to normal quickly. But we must realize it still may be early days for the return of the full workforce to work as things may not go back to normal after a few weeks or even a few months. To emerge stronger from the coronavirus crisis, organizations, irrespective of whether offices are physical or virtual, must adjust management styles, rethink work culture and give impetus to employee engagement and motivation to bring about positive changes in employee mindset amidst evolving pandemic situations.

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Topics: Employee Relations, #GuestArticle, #ContinuousReinvention, #COVID-19

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