Whether you are ready for it or not, the return to office (RTO) is coming— but it’s going to look a bit different than when we left in March 2020. Back then, when COVID-19 was just starting to infiltrate society, the vast majority of us thought we would be working from home for two, three weeks tops. Now, over a year since we first transitioned to remote work, it’s time for some of us to turn on our heels and head back into the office.

While we were learning how to be productive as we adapted to the work from home lifestyle, we were inadvertently redefining how the modern employee gets their job done. This past year saw a worldwide adaptation to remote tech tools, video conferencing software and virtual collaboration software. Meanwhile, leagues of dedicated scientists were working day and night to create vaccines that would allow us to safely reenter society as we once knew it.

As we approach the end of May 2021, at least 163,907,827 people in the United States or 49% of the population have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and overall, more than 130 million people in the United States or 39% of the population have been fully vaccinated.

covid-19 vaccine passports

Source: Unsplash

To promote national health and safety best practices, vaccine passports have been introduced to the public as a way to differentiate between those who are fully vaccinated and those who aren’t. But what does this mean for the return to work? Will businesses begin requiring proof of vaccination for on-site employees? Let’s take a look at how some organizations are navigating yet another monumental operational shift.

What are Vaccine Passports?

A vaccine passport is a paper or digital form certifying that a person has been vaccinated against a specific disease. While the current global debate around vaccine passports pertains to COVID-19, they have actually been around for over a century and were first introduced in the early 1900s to differentiate between who was and was not vaccinated against the plague.

covid vaccine passports and businesses

Source: CNBC

As the world begins to reopen to international travel, some countries are implementing vaccine passport mandates to bar any unvaccinated people from entering their country. For example, China and Bahrain have started issuing digital vaccine passports to their citizens to equip them for international travel. Other countries, like Georgia and Poland allow incoming travelers with vaccine passports to avoid otherwise mandatory testing or quarantine requirements.

However, in April the United States government announced that they would not be issuing vaccine passports to their citizens. “The government is not now, nor will we be, supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. “There will be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential.”

How Companies are Navigating Vaccine Requirements

Instead, the United States will be allowing private institutions to create their own vaccine requirements if they wish to do so. There have already been a handful of organizations to announce their personal vaccine requirements. For example, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings announced that when they restart cruises in July 2021 they will require all guests and crew members to show proof of vaccination.

At the collegiate level, Brown University and Northeastern University are among the most recent United States universities to require students to show proof of vaccine in order for them to return for on-campus classes in the fall.

But what about your office job? Can they require you to show proof of vaccination to return to on-site work? A recent report found that a majority of U.S. employers, 65%, plan to offer employees incentives to get vaccinated and 63% will require proof of vaccination

To find out if your office will require you to get vaccinated or show proof of vaccination, the best thing to do is have a conversation with your supervisor or team leader about the company policy. 

For leadership teams and HR representatives, use surveys and employee feedback to design a return to office plan that works for everyone. Use the Tools for Navigating the Return to Office Guide to create your own RTO plan and avoid employees not feeling heard. 

How to Set Up Your Office to Promote Safety in the Workplace

The good news is there are many ways to keep your in-office workers safe that don't require proof of vaccination. Whatever side of the vaccine debate you're on, we can all agree that safety in the workplace is paramount and right now safety is all about preparedness for the future. It’s also important to make sure your employees feel safe and comfortable with whatever route you take.

To create a workplace environment that puts the health and safety of your employees first as they make this transition back to the office, you will want to instill hyflex policies and retrofit your office to support the needs of your changed employees.

Hyflex Policies to Support the RTO

Hyflex workplace policies, or hybrid-flexible policies, are designed to support employees who work best with a flexible work style. When you enact both hybrid policies— like allowing employees to telecommute while working from anywhere— along with flexible policies— like core hours and meeting free days— you are setting your employees up for long-term success as they return to the office in 2021. Recently, many people started seeking out fully remote opportunities when they were told they had to return to the office. Offering more flexible options will help companies retain talent and keep their employees happy.

Ultimately, the success of your hyflex policies will depend on how well tailored they are to the needs of your employees. Before you go ahead and create a bunch of policy changes, take the time to survey your employees to find out how these policies can best support them moving forward. Maybe your employees are members of the 80% who agree or strongly agree that there should be at least one day a week with no meetings at all. Or maybe your team members are among the 74% of full time workers that agree or strongly agree that they should have core hours moving forward. Either way, you won’t know until you ask them.

The most popular hyflex policies incorporate a combination of synchronous and asynchronous communication strategies to keep teams connected regardless of where team members are working from on any given day. They are designed to support clear communication and remote collaboration to assist teams that are adjusting to their new hybrid lifestyle. It will be common during the adjustment period for some employees to work on-site while others are remote. The important part is that you set appropriate short and long term expectations for the remote/on-site work balance of hybrid teams and that you provide hybrid employees with the access to any tech tools they’ll need to ensure a smooth transition.

The most popular hyflex policies used to support the RTO are:

    • Core Hours— a slight adjustment to the typical work schedule, this is when employees block off a few hours each day where they are available for meetings and team communication but reserve the rest of the day for independent work. 
    • Daily Flexible Schedule— ideal for highly individual employees who are rarely required to attend meetings, they allow employees to work during different hours each day depending on their daily responsibilities and meeting schedule.
    • Meeting Free Days/Offline days— exactly how they sound, days where employees have no scheduled meetings allowing employees to have deeper, uninterrupted work sessions. As mentioned before, meeting free days are one of the most popular hyflex policies for remote and hybrid workers.
    • Compressed Work Weeks— when employees fit 40 hours of work into less days than the standard 5 (this is also frequently known as the 4 day work week) and is ideal for employees who work on independent projects most of the time.
    • Voluntary Return to Office— when you give your employees the option to work in your office when they choose to. Provide ample workspaces to accommodate your full team should they choose to come in but make all workspaces flexible so they can be used for whatever is most ideal that day. 


Retrofitting Your Office to Support the RTO

In addition to creating new workplace policies to make the workplace a safer environment for employees regardless of their vaccine status, it is also in your best interest to invest in some long-term office reorganization. When your office is optimized for your employees safety, they will be more likely to eagerly RTO. However, if you are unable or uninterested in evolving your workspace to adapt to new, increasingly flexible, employee needs, they will be less enthusiastic about transitioning back to on-site work.

Just like how you surveyed employees before creating hyflex policies, you’ll also want to check in on them about which changes to the office space they are most excited to see— and don’t hesitate to get creative here.

Some of the top office features and flexible workspaces you can use to support the RTO are:

  • Flexible Workspaces/Hotdesks

These are individual or shared desks (or more creative workspaces like standing desks, treadmill desks, or round tables for collaboration) that aren’t dedicated to one person. They should be sanitized between uses.

  • Interactive Maps/Sensors
    This new technology for the office includes products like interactive maps of desks, conference rooms, or other common spaces that show use along with sensors and people counting software that uses heatmapping to show where there are less crowded areas to work.

  • Huddle Pods/Phone Booths

Smaller conference rooms or individual, soundproofed phone booths or pods give people a chance to connect with remote employees or hold smaller hybrid team conversations from the office. These are also ideal options for creative individuals who host podcasts for work or need quiet for certain tasks.

  • Room Booking

Room booking is a simple solution for avoiding crowded areas in the workplace. Use meeting room booking systems and equip your meeting rooms with a meeting room device to minimize touching and moving equipment.

  • Tech Rental Stations
    For hybrid employees who don’t work out of the office every day, a tech rental station can be a game changer. Instead of requiring them to commute with their laptops and other tech tools in tow, offer them the opportunity to rent the tech they need on-site.

  • IT Vending Machines
    An even more user-friendly spin on tech rental stations, companies like HubSpot and Salesforce have created tech vending machines to reduce support tickets and person-to-person contact for smaller tech-related items.

  • Creative-focused Rooms
    For designers, developers, or social media/marketing teams, these rooms have collaborative technology like smart whiteboards or intuitive video conferencing software that are designed to support hybrid collaboration, making them the perfect meeting spots for impromptu brainstorming sessions or standup meetings for creative teams.

  • Streaming Rooms
    Streaming rooms are private rooms equipped with a monitor and video conferencing technology that is always streaming and ready for use (with great Wifi!)They are ideal for hybrid teams who may find themselves needing to meet virtually without a moment's notice.

Whether your organization will require on-site employees to show proof of vaccination or not, there are many ways for you to implement workplace changes designed to keep everyone safe.

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