woman in a polka dot shirt with a blue and white face mask with a bandage on her arm after getting a vaccination

Vaccine Mandates Score Another Win for the Digital Workplace: Flexibility

October 05, 2021 Digital Workplace
Lance Haun
By Lance Haun

HR leaders are grappling with their next challenge in the longest two years of their professional lives: How to manage the coming vaccine mandate

Of course, there was a lot that could’ve prevented us from getting to this point, most of which has to do with people taking the vaccine voluntarily. Cash for vaccine programs offered by employers were unsurprisingly ineffective in getting people vaccinated. A number of incentives offered by state governments didn’t light the world on fire, either. 

As the saying goes, when the carrot stops working, you always have the stick. That’s what we will turn to as governments and organizations continue their year-and-a-half battle against the global pandemic. And it turns out that this next phase could have benefits for companies that have gone all-in on the digital workplace.

Early Results Should Be Encouraging on Mandates

Among the tasks on talent leaders' never-ending buffet of work includes figuring out how to meet a new mandate and avoid the large fines and bad press associated with not following them. As Eckert Seamans attorney Amy Snyder told Reworked, HR leaders to-do list may include:

  • Identifying a team of individuals responsible for implementing the federal Emergency Temporary Standard and assessing any impact on existing policies and processes.
  • Determining a method to collect, track and store information about vaccination status and/or testing.
  • Assessing what, if any, changes need to be made to payroll systems to track paid time off for vaccination and any side effects.
  • Considering testing options.
  • Considering whether the business will offer incentives to obtain a vaccine.

For companies worried about the potential fallout and layoffs, a look at early vaccine mandates at organizations is encouraging — assuming you aren’t against a mandate for political reasons.

United Airlines announced that it would begin the process of laying off roughly 600 employees, or less than 1% of their workforce. Peconic Bay Medical Center in New York will lay off roughly 2% of their staff. Novant Health in North Carolina had 98.6% of their workers in compliance with mandates.

These early mandate guinea pigs also show that, even with more than 99% compliance, there’s enough grief that everyone gets to deal with as part of enforcing these emergent rules. 

Related Article: Does Your Company Need an Employee Vaccination Policy?

A Win for the Digital Workplace

Organizations that can go all in on the digital workplace or are choosing to go fully remote have another advantage: flexibility. 

While formal guidance is still likely a month or two out, Alston & Bird attorney Ashley Brightwell told SHRM that remote employees likely wouldn’t be covered by the mandate. Given that the emergency temporary standard uses the "grave danger" requirement, the risk of contracting COVID-19 is not work-related if an employee is remote.

If that assumption holds true, this gives remote-only or remote-capable employers with more than 100 employees many more options. Non-compliant employees or those seeking compliance with mandates can work remotely. Companies don’t necessarily need to offer testing options if everyone is capable of remote work, making optional office visits open to only vaccinated employees. Documentation is significantly less for those without a physical presence at all. 

Permanent OSHA rules are unlikely to be finalized before the end of the first quarter of 2022, giving those who would eventually like to return to offices even more time to wait and see. Of course, a lot can happen in six months including the likelihood of more vaccines earning full FDA approval and emergency use authorizations for children under 12. 

Related Article: How Private Companies Within the US Can Prepare for the Vaccination Mandate

A Possible Short-Term Loss for Public Health

I’m certainly not advocating for using remote work to play a get-out-of-vaccination-free card, but there are obvious consequences to anyone continuing to choose to stay unvaccinated. Having that person stay at home might reduce one risk vector of traveling to and from work, as well as working in an office all day. 

Still, it may not be a net win for public health. As neither a doctor nor an epidemiologist, I’m hesitant to even wager a guess. 

But remote work gives people the ability to also continue working while under quarantine (if not sick, of course) or if a child or other family member in need has care requirements that keep people at home. In the times where my child has spent time away from school, I appreciated having the flexibility plus the support to reduce my workload to manage. 

Going forward, flexibility will continue to be the norm for anyone who can offer it. And honestly? I hope it stays that way.

About the Author

Lance Haun lives life at the intersection of people, work and technology. He's currently a practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy and a contributor for Reworked and ERE.net.

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