With more Covid-19 outbreaks very likely, businesses should have a plan in place to deal with whatever the pandemic throws at them. It should include these measures: reducing restrictions when the situation allows, planning for another surge or epidemic now when cases are low, embracing remote and hybrid working, and effectively communicating pandemic plans.
Business leaders in the United States and many other parts of the world breathe a sigh of relief as the push for Omicron BA.1 is in the past with higher community immunity, new effective treatments and many tests and vaccines. But with the Omicron BA.2 strain and its descendants becoming dominant and immunity to infection and vaccinations waning, the pandemic is not over and companies need to be prepared for whatever the pandemic has in store for them next. This article outlines four steps leaders can take now to increase employee safety and reduce business disruption in the event of future community outbreaks.
The pandemic is not over
Covid-19 cases rose sharply in Europe in March, are still high in parts of Asia and North America, and US officials are warning of a fall surge. Meanwhile, the latest country to have a zero-tolerance policy against the coronavirus, China, is struggling to contain the virus. Beyond this situation, there are reasons to fear that 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, causing the virus to mutate in ways that are difficult to anticipate. More than 5.2 million refugees from the war on Ukraine will increase global risk as refugees have reduced access to testing, vaccines and the ability to quarantine or self-isolate. Simultaneously, waning immunity to coronavirus or variants that do not 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 plagued by pandemic fatigue. This includes business leaders who want and need to focus their skills and activities on business-critical areas and devote less thought, time and energy to the pandemic. But the answer is not to ignore the pandemic; it’s having a system in place to manage it. It should include these components.
1. Reduce restrictions where possible.
With the current low rates of community transmission of Covid-19 in most of the United States, employers have removed pandemic precautions in a way that balances safety while allowing employees the freedom to interact and be optimally productive. Given the current lower infection risk, many companies are bringing their remote employees back to the workplace, and most have removed mask mandates.
Even as restrictions ease, employers should maintain some basic safety practices, such as encouraging employees to get their shots or boosts appropriately and staying home if they are sick, maximizing the quality of indoor air and maintain a workplace exposure notification system. Businesses may adjust any additional protective measures based on updated local, state, or federal guidelines as necessary or prudent.
Indoor masking should continue to be an option for everyone, even if local public health guidelines do 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 from illness.
2. Plan for another outbreak or outbreak now.
A new strain of coronavirus can travel the world in less than a day, so businesses need protocols that will protect their business against future surges. Employers now have a unique opportunity, when transmission is low, to apply the hard-learned lessons of the past two years to develop plans that respond to this time of the pandemic.
There are several key ingredients to creating a successful response. A good starting point is to choose metrics and thresholds that would trigger changes in the company’s Covid-19 security protocol. Using factors such as community transmission rates, sewage monitoring, hospital capacity, test positivity rates, variant infectivity, and vaccination rates, companies can define specific triggers when a different answer is justified.
Companies must also choose which of their sites to monitor. Many companies should limit monitoring to sites with many employees and readily available data. In some cases, companies may choose to assess the risk related to where employees live rather than the workplace itself. The key is to choose the site or sites that have a large portion of the workforce or where business interruptions should be minimized.
Most interventions – such as wearing masks, educating employees about the effectiveness of different types of masks, physical distancing, Covid-19 testing and vaccination requirements – can be flexed up or down. low. However, by making changes too frequently, organizations run the risk of confusing employees about the policies currently in place. A pre-determined and balanced approach will allow organizations to react quickly to developments with a minimum of new decision-making. Organizations that create such simplified plans will have an advantage over competitors who will be distracted from their core business as they reactively design a response at every turn of the pandemic.
3. Embrace remote and hybrid working.
Many companies continue to offer the option to work remotely and realize that this flexibility benefits both them and their employees. This is especially important for unvaccinated or high-risk people, such as those who are immunocompromised. Employers can plan accordingly by having enhanced guidance for unvaccinated or unimmunized employees on site and instructing them to continue working remotely, requiring masking indoors, or conducting surveillance testing.
Companies have found many ways to foster community and communication among their employees, despite hybrid or remote working arrangements. Some organizations encourage time in the office on certain days of the week or promote specific events or all-staff meetings that build community while limiting the overall risk of transmission. Organizations that continue to facilitate flexible working arrangements will be better able to attract and retain employees, as workers now seek companies that can adapt and create stability during these challenging times.
4. Effectively communicate pandemic plans.
The very real possibility of future outbreaks or localized outbreaks makes ongoing communication with employees important, even when community case rates are low.
Employees think their employers have been successful in keeping them safe throughout the pandemic, according to a survey we conducted this winter. Additionally, employees who said their employer kept them safe in the workplace were more engaged, more productive, and less likely to leave. At the same time, some employees may feel that there is no need to reinstate security measures in the event of a pandemic, making active communication and setting employee expectations of managers and crucial leaders.
Employers can offer regular updates on the company plan to support safety, although they recognize that fewer measures are needed when community case rates are low. These communications should be routine and spaced out according to local circumstances. Routine communication will allow for a faster company-wide response when/if circumstances change.
It can take years for leaders to build credibility and trust among employees, and that trust can erode within days or weeks. Communicating a well-designed pandemic safety plan in a clear and candid manner is an important step in maintaining employee confidence and resilience to meet even greater challenges tomorrow.
Businesses can take advantage of this unique time, when risks are low but the memory of the Omicron wave is still fresh, to create a system and protocols that will respond to any future pandemic risk. This will allow employers to focus on the economic and geopolitical challenges ahead. With proactive and flexible planning, businesses can create a competitive advantage that will give them an edge no matter what happens next.