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Workforce resilience: What HR professionals can learn from the pandemic

Workforce resilience has always been an essential part of effective HR leadership. Now, with ever-changing policies since offices started closing in March 2020, that resilience is being tested. Many companies that hoped to return to the office this fall have pushed their plans due to the Delta variant. And, a new school year brings new questions of what life will be like when (or if) kids return to school buildings.

Now that some companies are requiring vaccines and tying healthcare costs to vaccination status, HR professionals face an all-new challenge — navigating new policies and communicating them to employees. This all came to a head on September 9, 2021, when President Biden introduced an action plan to combat the pandemic, including several vaccine requirements.

Specifically, the plan requires federal employees, contractors or healthcare employees of facilities that accept Medicare and/or Medicaid and certain federally funded schools’ private employers to require their employees to be vaccinated. Employers with 100 or more employees must ensure their workforce is fully vaccinated or require that any unvaccinated employees produce a negative COVID-19 test result on at least a weekly basis before going to work. This action will affect an estimated 80 million U.S. workers.

No matter where employers fall on the issues of vaccine and mask mandates, one thing is true: HR leaders will carry the burden. HR professionals will have to address concerns, communicate changes and find a technical solution for tracking vaccinations and testing across their companies.

What lessons on workforce resilience can HR leaders take from 2020 and carry through the end of 2021 and beyond?

1. Communicate early and often


Your people need to understand why you’re taking workplace safety actions, so keep lines of communication open and anticipate what questions people will have. Setting up an employee support model will help address COVID-related concerns and changing policies, like vaccine mandates.

In the traditional employment deal, employees gave organizations productivity in exchange for compensation and benefits. However, COVID fundamentally reshaped that relationship, and employees now expect their employers to care for their wellbeing as part of a beneficial employee experience. With this comes increased employee interest in wellbeing programs, and the perceived value of wellbeing programs, tools and information continues to rise.

Understanding employee sentiment and making employees feel safe at work will be a key component of workplace resilience as vaccine mandates develop, schools open and companies make changes to their return-to-office plans.

2. Be prepared to pivot


In an Alight survey, taken August 31, 2021, just 14% of responding employers were mandating vaccines, and 88% reported that they’re educating employees about vaccines, why they are important, and where they can get vaccinated. Only a few days after the survey closed, the White House announced its new vaccine mandate policy — exhibiting just how quickly things are changing today.

In light of the president’s announcement, if employees refuse to comply with the new vaccine policies, the employer may be in the difficult position of either adhering to the mandate and terminating those employees or deviating from the mandate for certain employees, increasing the risk of discrimination claims. Employers will also need to account for workers who cannot get the vaccine for medical or sincerely held religious reasons. 

Employers will need to find a tool that not only tracks vaccinated employee populations but adapts to changing requirements — like booster shots and testing mandates — and allows for easy onboarding for new employees. The right tool will help you think strategically to spot risks where you need to act to be more resilient. When tracking new employee population data like vaccination status, digitizing the information and integrating it with your existing systems will be key.

3. Lead with trust


Your employees understand that there are many unknowns in today’s world. Being honest and transparent through the uncertainty of the COVID crisis will build trust in your organization. HR leaders should be transparent about the public health information that guides their decision-making and align themselves with trustworthy authorities who provide accurate information. For example, some organizations are educating employees about the vaccine and making it easier for employees to get vaccinated. They are covering any costs and offering paid time off to get the vaccine and recover from possible side effects.

Silence will only lead to confusion and concern. Communicate clearly and often with employees to help them understand your policies as they develop.

Consider your company’s unique needs and your employees’ sentiment when making decisions about mandates and return-to-work policies. If the last year taught us anything, it’s that workforce resilience is essential and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. The right partner will help you listen to your employees and respond to their concerns, stay on top of changing local country regulations, review any new legal requirements and even recommend process improvements to keep you running smoothly. 

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