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Return to Work Best Practices: How to Ride Variant Waves

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Weekly paradigm shifts in how employees, employers, and business investors perceive COVID-19, the markets, and the workforce have muddied return to work practices. While the talk at the end of 2021 focused on the rising risk and concern created by the Omicron variant, those crises have largely been put in the rearview mirror already.

The truth is that these vast swings of reactions will likely continue as variants continue affecting business processes, especially among unvaccinated workforces. It is less likely for the virus to mutate in a vaccinated individual compared to an unvaccinated individual, where the virus remains for a longer period of time. Because of this, we are more likely to see different variants as long as portions of the public remain unvaccinated.

Instead of continuing to suffer whiplash by creating new processes that meet new circumstances, companies need to build resiliency into their business processes: new hiring practices, work practices, and productivity measures will all require a continuous stream of fluidity rather than lightning-fast responses to specific circumstances.

This guide will teach you how to adapt your organization to thrive through endemic spikes and create your own resilient future of work.

The Future Is Endemic

It's time to stop thinking about COVID-19 in terms of a one-off pandemic and more as a constant hazard that will be part of professional and personal lives for years to come. This doesn't mean it's time to hang up our masks for good and do away with any protocols; in fact, it means the opposite.

Companies need stronger policies than ever to guide employees and managers with the right courses of action to accommodate sudden spikes of positive tests. From sound case management to outbreak prevention, strengthening your policies now can help your organization avoid the devastating financial impacts presented by the virus. 

Once you and your executive team accept that COVID-19 is endemic, you can start planning for the future instead of being caught off-guard by each new emergency. By developing roles such as a Director of Future of Work and building up the infrastructure for more flexible working arrangements that ensure work still gets done without jeopardizing health or wellness, you'll be well on your way to rebuilding your organization that can navigate any adverse circumstances or disaster.

But it's very important to know the differences between 'endemic' and simply 'prolonged.' Because of patchwork responses to vaccines and the inability to quarantine effectively enough to stem the development of variants, the world will almost certainly have COVID-19 in some form for years or even decades.

The original strain made way for the Delta variant, which soon gave way to the Omicron variant, and, according to a recent article in Nature, those variants "carry mutations that blunt the potency of antibodies raised against past versions of SARS-CoV-2. And the forces propelling this 'antigenic change' are likely to grow stronger as most of the planet gains immunity to the virus through infection, vaccination, or both."

While it's not clear if the variants will decline in severity until the future COVID-19 is more like a cold or it will become a serious perennial threat like the flu, it's almost certainly here to stay.

What Does This Mean for Enterprise Organizations?

Rather than having the obligation of simply hanging on until things go back to normal, enterprise organizations must build up policies for preventing endemic breakouts just like they prepare for cybersecurity viruses and any other recurring threats that jeopardize a business's stability. Some of the most important concerns will be:

Keep Employees Healthy

When employees are healthy, they're more productive. While teams and managers should certainly value employees' well-being more than their productivity, that metric is still critical to business success. Building programs that allow for better access to healthcare, wellness programs, testing, hypothetical annual vaccines for COVID in the future, and other health-related benefits will be business essentials, not perks.

Prevent Business Disruptions

Sick employees shouldn't disrupt business. Your executive team needs to start creating strategies that allow for resilience in the event of having key and/or numerous employees home sick with little to no warning. Transparent workflows, better communication and culture, and a focus on automation can all minimize the disruption of future variants on business.

Limit Lost Productivity

The sudden shift to virtual work two years ago was rough. Billions of dollars were lost as businesses struggled to make the switch to a brand new style of work. But now that your processes have been stress-tested, you can create more adaptable processes so work doesn't screech to a halt.

Return to Work Best Practices

As you build your return-to-work processes and hybrid work policies, keep these essential best practices in mind:

Situational Awareness

Executives, directors, and managers need to be aware of rising trends in cases, new strains, and what local experts are forecasting in terms of breakouts. Also, keep track of test shortages, hospitalization rates, and other factors that can negatively impact business. In doing so, you can protect yourself from the unknown of jeopardizing high-risk employees and their family members.

Follow Local Regulations

Local governments are enforcing their own testing, mask, and vaccine policies. As a general rule of thumb, local rules should always be followed. Make sure you and your employees are adhering to the strictest restrictions in place, whether they're at the local, state, or federal level.

Know the Status of Your Employee Population at All Times

While you need to balance privacy with expedience, your organization needs to have policies in place so you can monitor which employees are partially vaccinated, fully vaccinated with the latest recommended boosters, and those who are high-risk so you can proactively make accommodations.

Make testing accessible and do what you can to limit the effects of politicization of the issue. It's about safety and business, not political beliefs.

Manage Cases Properly

Have appropriate tracking mechanisms in place so your company can respond quickly — and virtually — to sudden surges in cases. Also, have a continually updated resource bank alerting employees of what to do in different circumstances. 

Track Employee Sentiment and Maintain Transparent Communications

Wellness, not just health, is essential for the modern workplace to succeed. Ask for feedback, routinely survey employees for their stances on different changes, and make sure employees understand and have access to up-to-date communications. 

Create a Hybrid Work Environment

No matter how much you create proactive strategies, not everyone will return to the office, and there might even be days when no one can go to the office. Make a hybrid workplace the norm (for industries that are able) so infected employees can still contribute and so cautious employees can work in a way that feels safe.

Keep Your Business Thriving in an Uncertain Future With Support From ReturnSafe

'Returning to work' won't mean 'returning to normal.' Instead, your organization needs to have policies and work resources available for hybrid work, a greater focus on wellness, and the understanding that some form of COVID-19 is here to stay. ReturnSafe is here to help with testing solutions, security and privacy services, and more. Contact us today for support as you ride the variant waves.