The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the critical nature of the global food manufacturing industry into clear focus and highlighted the essential role that food and beverage producers play in the maintenance of public health.
COVID-19 vaccine rollout and return-to-office and travel resumption challenges
- Product Recall
COVID-19 vaccine rollout and return-to-office and travel resumption challenges
The global rollout of several COVID-19 vaccines is welcome news for individuals and businesses. The rollout comes amid a dramatic increase in infection rates across North America and Europe in recent weeks and the return of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. In some particularly hard-hit sectors, such as food and beverage manufacturing, the arrival of vaccines has been met with an enormous sense of relief given the immense challenges the industry has faced in employee safety, productivity and supply chain disruption.
Sensing that the end of the pandemic might finally be in sight, many companies are now renewing their focus on resuming the activities that were most fundamentally disrupted, namely: employees returning to the office and conducting business travel. Executive teams are beginning to dust off their initial return timelines and in some cases moving up milestones based on projected vaccine distribution timeframes.
Despite this vaccine-related optimism, companies still face significant hurdles associated with return-to-office and business travel planning. There are several key considerations companies must account for when developing and executing their related strategies:
Opposition to the vaccine:
A vaccine-based strategy will only be effective if employees are willing to be vaccinated. Early polls have shown mixed sentiment on whether individuals are comfortable receiving the vaccine. According to surveys in December, 30-40% of Americans still say they would not get the vaccine—this is an increase over recent months but still reflects an alarmingly high proportion of the population’s unwillingness to be vaccinated. This will put companies in a difficult position, as they will have to wrestle with whether to mandate vaccinations to protect their workforces. While US federal guidelines indicate that companies can generally mandate employees receive the COVID-19 vaccination, employers must carefully navigate any potential employee relations issues and reputational backlash associated with such a requirement. Furthermore, anti-discrimination and health privacy laws and regulations in certain jurisdictions, as well as objections based on individual medical conditions and personal beliefs, may make a blanket requirement unworkable. Many companies are now looking at a corporate directive or standard that accounts for the aforementioned complexities and that can be backed up by sustained educational outreach to the workforce.
Understanding the various vaccination requirements of different segments of the workforce will be key for companies. For example, the CDC has recommended that phase one of each state’s rollout include front line workers in the food production industry. This category includes workers operating in the manufacturing environment (e.g., plant personnel, support functions, maintenance, sanitation and plant management) but does not necessarily apply to those individuals working in corporate offices that are geographically separate from the manufacturing facility. Organizations will need to conduct thorough audits of their workforces to identify employee eligibility timeframes and build plans around those timeframes. An additional challenge revolves around managing access-related barriers to vaccinations. Personal investments in time and travel to obtain vaccines may be a barrier for some essential worker groups (particularly if two doses are required), including those in rural areas, shift workers or workers with limited economic means.
Shifting employee preferences:
While employees were originally thrown off by the sudden, global and near-total move to a work-from-home environment, many have not only grown accustomed to it but prefer this arrangement to their pre-COVID-19 work lives. For many, this has meant the removal of long commutes and travel, more time with their families and more flexibility to balance their work and home life commitments. As a result, companies will need to carefully manage the needs of those employees who do not want to return to the office—or who wish to return on a part-time basis only—and those individuals who cannot wait to get back to their desk and pre-COVID-19 routines. For many employees, COVID-19 resulted in a marked decline in mental wellness. The disruption of daily routines coupled with a rapid increase in the number and severity of personal stressors has challenged the resilience of the workforce and raised concerns around a range of issues that will likely continue in the months ahead as employees transition back to an office environment. A vulnerable workforce enhances risk for a business in multiple areas from productivity to workplace security. Before implementing return-to-office plans, organizations should have a robust discussion around workplace culture and review established procedures with the goal of identifying and responding to a range of employee-focused issues. Companies should also closely monitor and incorporate employee preferences into their planning activities.
Customers and competitors:
Organizations should also be aware that return-to-office and travel strategies cannot be developed in isolation. The expectations of customers, vendors and competitors may be aligned to different timelines that put pressure on organizations to return quicker than their risk tolerance and preferences would desire. Organizations will need to carefully weigh the need to avoid being at a competitor disadvantage for moving too slowly against potential employee safety risks associated with transitioning back to the office and resuming business travel too rapidly.
Even with the vaccine, there is a high likelihood that the office environment employees return to will look very different from the one they last saw before COVID-19. Vaccines are not a silver bullet and organizations will need to consider new policies around things such as hybrid workforce, physical distancing, PPE and wellness checks, for at least a period of time during and after vaccine administration. Companies will need to determine who will enforce these new policies. Questions companies face include: is this the responsibility of security given their primary remit is to protect companies, people and assets? Or is it best left to EH&S or even individual managers? How will vaccine take-up be enforced, ensuring that companies do not violate HIPAA or ADA requirements? The answers to these questions will depend on each organization’s culture and operating model—but enforcement should not be overlooked in planning activities.
While the idea of returning to the office and travel is a complex undertaking, unlike the early days of COVID-19 when offices had to close down immediately, companies now by and large have the luxury of time to develop and implement an effective strategy. Companies should consider creating a dedicated working group—separate from but reporting into the organization’s crisis management team—to oversee the development and implementation of effective corporate return-to-office and travel resumption strategies. These strategies will need to account for the issues noted above among other key focus areas including employee communications, medical records and data privacy issues and managing on-site visitors and contractors. Scenario planning should include development of key milestones and/or triggers, which should be agreed upon and monitored against on a real-time basis. Even though organizations might have the luxury of time, they should ensure they maintain their levels of energy and preparation all the way to the finish line.
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