December 16, 2020 5 min read
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Managers who have spent the past nine months optimizing their “remote” teams are now facing a new set of uncertainties. Will this vaccine end the pandemic? Will business-as-usual resume? Is a “return” to normal even a worthy goal? Should offices reopen? Not just from a health perspective, but more generally, are offices actually a good investment? If so, what should a company’s vaccine policy be?
For managers who do intend to re-open offices in the near to medium term, there are a host of things to consider as you go about constructing a company-wide policy. Should you optimize for safety? If so, is a mandatory policy the best bet? Should you fire employees who refuse vaccination? Are there legal ramifications for doing so? Should you optimize for freedom and choice? If so, should you let unvaccinated employees come into the office? Should you let those who don’t want to be vaccinated work remotely forever? Are unvaccinated employees even a risk to those who have immunity?
There are many variables to consider — each with potentially company-breaking consequences. A policy that winds up killing people is a catastrophic risk to the lives of your employees and your company. And a policy that alienates people who value their individual freedom might lead to class-action lawsuits that can cripple your business.
With so much at stake, it’s critical to have a framework for constructing a policy that can be clearly understood and embraced. Here are four pieces of advice every manager should consider as they chart the course of their company’s office reopenings and vaccinations.
Begin planning now
With several vaccines on the horizon for early 2021, it’s not too early to plan. Assess your employee population to understand what their values, concerns and needs are. Knowing what really matters to them will help you communicate your policies in the most impactful ways. Separate the non-negotiables from the negotiables so that employees understand their choices. Non-negotiables may include directives for safety and avoiding political discussions about pros and cons. Negotiables may include the option to work from home for a certain period of time.
Build trust by leading by example
If you encourage or mandate that employees take a vaccine, it is imperative that you lead by example. Pictures and videos can speak volumes, and can help destigmatize and humanize what you are asking of your employees. Openly taking the vaccine, on camera, and showing your employees that you’re happy to be the “first one on the dance floor” is imperative. You can’t ask people to do something you yourself won’t do, and therefore you should be transparent and public about your personal decision to do so, especially given how controversial that decision has become in our highly polarizing social and political environment.
There are no easy paths ahead. Whether you disregard the vaccine, make it optional, encourage it, or make it mandatory, you are going to have a considerable number of employees who disagree — and the disagreements likely won’t be minor. Be prepared to have plenty of accommodation requests. If you don’t mandate it, expect to have many employees insist on working remotely forever. If you do make it mandatory, expect to have employees who claim this is a civil rights issue. Train your human resources staff to process these requests, and decide now, in advance, what your policies will be as they come in. The reactions to your vaccine policy are predictable, and it’s important you map them out now and train your staff on how to respond to them.
Understand the law, and consult with your attorneys
Things are changing rapidly, so know the laws, understand them, and definitely consult your attorneys. Just because you think a particular policy is “right” does not make it legal or immune to lawsuits. And, even if your selected policy is absolutely legal, it still doesn’t mean you won’t get sued. Lawsuits are expensive even if you prevail, and the last thing you need are employees who disagree with you hiring lawyers and coming after your company. This is a legal minefield, and it’s best to spend some money upfront when you construct a policy rather than down the road after a selected policy backfires.
We are heading into unchartered territory. From a legal, health, social, and financial perspective, there is no precedent for the decisions business leaders are about to face. The final piece of advice I will reiterate to you — which is what I am sharing with all of my clients — is to plan now and consult with your Board, employees, staff, advisors, and lawyers. Whatever path you choose, it will impact your company culture forever, and you cannot “overthink” this decision. There are plenty of choices that are best made with speed; this is not one of them.