How Should Employers, Global Mobility Pros Respond to Omicron?

Many companies’ hopes of things getting back to normal were dimmed due to the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus. Companies have been gradually anticipating returning to onsite work. That’s why business executives have been advising HR and global mobility teams to craft strategies for the eventual comeback of the physical workplace set-up. Google, for one hand, is delaying its plans to return to the office. There doesn’t seem to be an end to this evolving health crisis. On another hand, Facebook, now Meta, is sticking with its current plans to return to the office by next year.

The initial hope was that if countries would increase the rate of vaccination, then herd immunity levels were highly plausible. But apprehensions about the vaccines slowed down the pace and new variants are emerging fast where current vaccines possibly are ineffective against them. This endless cycle has businesses thinking of ways of living with the virus. A Harvard Business Review article elaborates on some measures companies are using.

Encourage employees to get vaccinated

Currently, vaccination seems to be the best way to keep the virus at bay. The latest updated science brief on Covid-19 vaccines states that vaccination remains highly effective against COVID-19 hospitalization and death caused by the Delta variant. A survey from Willis Towers Watson indicates that from the 543 employers, 57% plan to require employees to be vaccinated for Covid-19. Other than vaccinations, 84% of employers will offer testing – 80% are planning to do so on a weekly basis.

Despite the controversies revolving around an employer’s decision to mandate vaccination requirements, only 3% of the respondents reported a spike in resignations due to the mandates.

However, almost a third of employers who have yet to require vaccinations are concerned this could cause employees to leave the organizations. On the flip side, 48% that vaccine mandates would contribute to better recruitment and employee retention.

Companies such as American Express, Citigroup, Deloitte, and many others have made announcements on their plans of Covid-19 vaccinations mandates.

Before considering returning to the office, take into account local transmissions

Still, there isn’t sufficient evidence to claim that Omicron is considered more transmissible than other Covid-19 variants. Furthermore, it isn’t clear whether its infection causes more severe disease than previous variants. Nevertheless, companies should think twice before allowing their workers to come back to the office until experts get to understand how this particular variant behaves. Decision-makers can delay return-to-office plans just like Google. Others can opt to adopt hybrid workforces, but limit the number of people in the workplace by doing shifts.

Maintain social distancing 

While employees can report to offices on a staggered basis, it’s important to follow health protocols, especially social distancing. Numerous studies have shown the effectiveness of distancing measures in reducing Covid-19 infection and deaths. For example, a study focusing on the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo shows that distancing measures significantly reduces contagion speed. Another study concludes that a quantitative relationship between social distancing and statistical parameters defining the Covid-19 event of 9 selected European countries exists. 

Improve ventilation in the workplace

Besides providing employees the assurance that common areas where people are often in close contact such as canteens, bathrooms, or pantries are sanitized, businesses are keen on improving indoor air quality and ventilation to entice workers back to the office. There are ways to improve ventilation inside the office.

For one, buildings that are using older HVAC systems probably would benefit from a replacement. Systems with high fixed speeds should be upgraded to controlled ones so businesses can have more control of the airflow in any closed space. 

Other companies use air purification technology. Air filtration is found to be relatively the most acceptable form of air purification from experts, according to Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN). High-efficiency particulate air filters (HEPA) are commonly used in hospitals to maintain indoor air quality. A systematic literature review provides evidence that they can reduce viral infections.

Another form of air purification technology makes use of ultraviolet light to improve air quality. The technology is already known to kill other viruses since the 20th century and there has been plenty of research that has been conducted to prove its capability.

Wear masks at the right time and encourage testing

Vaccination can be quite a controversial topic. Topics ranging from its efficacy down to conspiracy theories against it. But when it boils down to science, it has been discovered that compliance with public mask mandates is effective against the spread of the Covid-19 virus. Experts do understand the need to prove the effectiveness of public mask-wearing in reducing the transmission of the virus. That’s specifically why they have been digging deeper in understanding these strategies in mitigating the spread of the virus so that policymakers can make more informed decisions with scientific basis.

The Center for Disease and Control advises both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals to wear masks in indoor public spaces. Big companies have already heeded its advice. Businesses ought to follow suit. 

Besides masks, many companies are eyeing to have their workers regularly tested if they’re planning to return to the office. According to Harvard’s survey, 84% percent of employer respondents are planning to offer regular testing. 

The downside to regularly testing employees is the high costs. But what employers can do is to keep an eye out for more affordable testing options. In mid-November, efforts of the US FDA to support nationwide Covid-19 testing were done. This will certainly aid businesses in having more affordable and accessible testing for their employees.

Indeed, there’s still a lot to learn about this new variant of the virus. Employers now have the idea that the virus is here to stay, and the only road to business continuity is to adapt.