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Business and HR leaders face COVID-19 vaccine dilemmas

COVID-19 vaccines open up a Pandora's Box of issues for companies learning how to deal with the return to offices and other workplaces. Here's why technology is critical.

Can COVID-19 vaccines save the traditional workplace? 

There's plenty of press about the legal ability for employers to mandate vaccines before we can abandon Zoom and return to the physical workplace. Currently, within the statutory accommodations for religious and ADA exemptions, private employers may require a vaccinated workplace once vaccinations get past emergency use status.

The business decision to require vaccinations, encourage them, or even ignore them presents plenty of HR dilemmas in addition to the legal implications. Some employees will welcome a mandate as reassurance that the place where they spend most of their waking hours isn't a petri dish of contagion. Others will feel a mandate infringes on their personal rights and could put them at risk for nasty side effects or unforeseen long-term issues.

What is clear is that employers reopening their doors should do whatever they can to assure a safe workplace. Technology will play an important role.

Analytics for productivity assessment

In response to stay-at-home mandates, employers scrambled to install or expand remote IT capabilities and address the myriad stressors their workforce faced.

Now, with nearly nine months of data on business impact, many organizations have figured out how working from home has impacted profitability through analytics tools that measure workforce productivity, employee wellbeing and engagement. These productivity measures can identify how critical it is to have all or some portion of employees back in shared environments.

If productivity hasn't suffered, the question of a vaccination mandate should have a pretty simple solution. Those who prefer working from home or who have concerns about the vaccines should have the ability to continue to work remotely. Those eager to come into the office could then be subject to a vaccine mandate or strong encouragement from the employer.

If productivity is an issue and a return to a shared workplace is necessary, that point should be made clear. To promote employee safety, employers can require COVID-19 vaccinations subject to the necessary accommodation rules. However, strong encouragement to get vaccinated will likely suffice. That may be less divisive and more effective for any workers returning to offices to foster a safe, shared work environment.

Even with a fully vaccinated staff, the issue still exists that the duration of protection by a vaccine hasn't been established. By the time shots are finally available to the entire population, it's quite possible that those initially immunized could need another set of shots. Nothing will be perfect, but an increasingly immunized population and continued social distancing practices should mitigate risk.

COVID-19 vaccine information vital

With ever-changing data emerging on the virus, vaccines and treatments, employers should make access to information a priority. The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that only half of Americans would voluntarily get the vaccine when their chance comes up. Roughly a fourth wouldn't, and the others say the jury is still out until more information is known.

To address this reluctance, it's incumbent on employers wanting employees to be vaccinated to be honest about the reasons for return to workplace, to make it easy to get the shots, to be prepared to accept some side-effect impact on workforce productivity and to reinforce that senior leadership are getting their shots, too.

Many organizations established COVID-19 microsites to keep employees current on emerging developments. Some even created personalized hubs that provide updates localized to the individual, with geolocated mobile capability to find local testing sites and in-network treatment facilities.

These same tools can be repurposed to help employees and their families find out how to register for government-distributed vaccinations. They can also provide users with self-selected healthcare content to address vaccination concerns, and top-down communication to reinforce the need for a safe workplace and affirm the commitment of senior leadership.

Technology can give employers the ability to provide their employees with notifications and self-service scheduling to facilitate efficient inoculations. For these employers, it's critical that vaccine distribution policies are clearly articulated and that they follow reasonable expectations for how vaccinations for various waves of the virus are prioritized.

Workplace vaccination tracking

In many developed countries, including the U.S., vaccinations are not tracked nationally. Additionally, data collected on government-administered shots wouldn't be available to employers for privacy reasons anyway, so any tracking will require individual effort.

People in the U.S. receiving COVID-19 vaccines will receive a physical vaccination card that could be used as a verification method for employers that mandate the shots. Most current benefits administration technology allows for mobile-scanned images to be uploaded and the information collected. However, HIPAA privacy requirements as well as other confidentiality issues would need to be examined before an employer makes a decision to collect this information as proof.

Less obtrusive methods include using survey technologies to capture an employee's declaration that they've been vaccinated, or simply disseminating a policy that by returning to the office, individuals acknowledge they've had the vaccine. Of course, taking either of these paths would make a mandate less reassuring to those reluctant to return in the first place.

There is plenty to consider.

The 2021 workplace

Whether mandated, encouraged or indifferent, employers will face plenty of legal, ethical, practical and technological considerations when it comes to the impact of vaccinations on the workplace. With a safety-first mentality, honest and open communication, and simplicity in whatever process is implemented, we just might get back to a familiar place in 2021.

About the author
Scot Marcotte is the chief technology officer at 
Buck, an integrated HR consulting, technology and benefits administration services firm. For 29 years he has helped organizations solve human resources challenges through the strategic use of data, communication and technology. He holds a certified employee benefit specialist (CEBS) designation, has co-authored a book on employee engagement, was named Xerox's innovator of the year and is a regular presenter at global HR conferences.

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