The Executive View: Leaders Question Return-to-Work Plans in Light of Delta Variant

Just when it seemed the workplace might return to normal, now comes the highly contagious Delta variant. Not only is the variant turning those return-to-work plans on their head, but it’s also forced executives to reconsider mandatory vaccination.

By Dana Wilkie August 3, 2021
The Executive View: Leaders Question Return-to-Work Plans in Light of Delta Variant

Just when it seemed the workplace might return to normal—with more people being vaccinated against COVID-19 and companies calling their employees back onsite—now comes the virus's highly contagious Delta variant.

Not only is the variant turning those return-to-work plans on their head, but it's also forced executives who were reluctant to require that workers get vaccinated to reconsider. And that decision, according to The New York Times, has executives "pulling their hair out."

Leaders may now have to choose between delaying workplace reopenings or bringing employees back onsite—and large majorities of them want to do that—at a time when mandatory vaccination may be the safest way to do so.

"It's emotionally draining on all of us, and it drives the top management teams crazy," said Bob Sutton, a psychology professor at Stanford University who studies leadership and organizations.

It's tricky territory: There are legal considerations. Political land mines. And having to determine what to do about workers who may not have a bona fide medical or religious reason for avoiding the vaccine but still refuse to get one.

With only about half of U.S. adults fully vaccinated, that could add up to a lot of workers.

To Mandate Vaccines ... or Not?

Several companies have reconsidered their "carrot" approach to convincing workers to take the coronavirus vaccine. Instead of giving cash and time-off incentives or reimbursing taxi rides for those who voluntarily get vaccinated, such companies are now turning to the "stick" approach by not only requiring that employees come to work vaccinated, but also considering disciplinary action, including termination, for workers who don't comply.

That's perfectly legal, according to recent federal guidance. Companies can require their employees be vaccinated against the virus.

And an increasing number of companies are doing just that.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai recently told workers in a memo that anyone returning to the company's campuses must be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Delta Air Lines says it will require new hires to be vaccinated but exempt current ones. United Airlines says it will require new hires to provide proof of vaccination within a week of starting but would exempt those who can offer medical or religious reasons for not getting vaccinated. 

The Walt Disney Company recently gave its U.S.-based salaried and nonunion, hourly employees 60 days to get vaccinated, while Walmart will require employees at its headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., and certain employees who travel in the U.S. to get vaccinated by Oct. 4, unless an exception applies.  

More than 50 health care associations, including the American Medical Association and the American College of Physicians, issued a joint statement urging employers in the industry to require vaccination

Public health care employees in New York City must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or submit to weekly testing, which began in August. Additionally, teachers, police officers and other municipal workers in the Big Apple will need to be vaccinated against the coronavirus by mid-September, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio. 

De Blasio has also urged private employers to require their workers to be vaccinated.

Navigating the Vaccine Mandate Waters

While it may be legal to mandate vaccinations, some companies are understandably nervous about going that far. The fear of lawsuits may be top of mind.

At a virtual CEO roundtable Fortune recently held in partnership with McKinsey & Co., none of the participants are yet requiring vaccination as a condition of employment, nor are they asking for proof of vaccination. That could change once the vaccines get full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has so far granted only emergency-use authorization to the three vaccines in use in the United States.

"Right now, we are just continuing to educate and push for vaccination," said Anne Klibanski, CEO of Mass General Brigham. "But as soon as it becomes FDA approved, it will be a condition of employment."

Honeywell CEO Darius Adamczyk shared, "The punch line for us is I'm not sure what we're going to do."

Should Executives Start Thinking About Leading from Afar?

Daily, it seems, there's a new story about a major company whose executives had to reconsider their return-to-the-worksite mandates.

Google said it would delay its return-to-office date from September to mid-October, thanks to the spread of the Delta variant. Apple announced it will postpone calling employees back into the office—also from September to October at the earliest. Jobs website Indeed has shelved plans to have its 11,000 workers back in company offices come early September, extending the delay as far out as early January.

Those decisions may throw more fuel on the fiery conflict between executives who want their workers back onsite and workers who, having successfully worked remotely for the past year, are pushing back.

"The future will feature more virtual work, not less," James Citrin and Darleen Derosa wrote. "Some companies will go to one of the extremes—either minimizing remote work to get as close to the way things were before the pandemic, or shedding all vestiges of in-office work with the attendant commuting, business travel and relocations. But most organizations will find themselves somewhere in the middle in a hybrid model.

"In this future," they concluded, "a key driver of organizational success will be how effective leaders are in leading at a distance."

Dana Wilkie is editor, SHRM online.

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