More companies institute vaccine mandates as employees increasingly demand it

The header image shows four people socially distanced wearing masks.

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Vaccinations against COVID-19 may be a hot-button issue in society and among certain members of the workforce, but it is increasingly noncontroversial for many companies. As the delta variant rages, Interpublic Group, Delta Air Lines, Deloitte, Citigroup and Google are just a handful of the companies to hand down mandates that employees be vaccinated before returning to the office.

Despite a vocal anti-vax contingent, employers would seem to have public opinion on their side. A recent Gallup poll indicated that 65% of the public has strong opinions about mandates, with a majority favoring them. Since May, the number of people who say their employers are requiring vaccines has jumped from 5% to 9%, which Gallup called “statistically meaningful.”

The decision to institute mandates has put many agencies, tech companies and other employers between a rock and a hard place, however, as they’ve had to weigh the positions of those employees who are anti-vax against those of the majority who want, even demand that their co-workers be protected, and that the workplace is a safer space for everyone. 

Sharon Harris, CMO of global digital marketing firm Jellyfish, whose clients include Google, Amazon and eBay, believes more employers instituting mandates was inevitable.

“While we as a society have to consider all, for our offices to function we also have to value the health of many over the concerns of a few,” she said. Noting that vaccines are a long-established mainstay of society — with everybody from schoolchildren to soldiers to our pet pooches required to be inoculated against disease — Harris said, “If we genuinely want to get back to work and resume aspects of life before COVID, we must take an altruistic viewpoint.”

Given the uncertainties around the virus and the disparate policies among companies, schools and other places people gather, however, Harris advised leaders to be “agile, transparent and empathetic.” She called the return to the office “an opportunity to reclaim work culture and emphasize purpose, inclusivity, belonging and true collaboration.”

The Milwaukee-based agency Hanson Dodge, which works with brands like K-Swiss and Mrs. Meyer’s, not only requires all employees, contractors and visitors to be fully vaccinated in its office — everyone is required to present proof.

Doing so was something employees insisted on. Kelly Klawonn, vp of talent and operations, said company leaders surveyed the staff in March, to better understand their feelings about possibly returning to the office in some capacity. The result: a “vast majority” of employees wanted everyone to be vaccinated. “We used that to help guide our policy to ensure the broadest level of protection and comfort to our employees,” she said. “We also wanted to avoid scenarios where we had to police or enforce policies on a daily basis” in regard to mask wearing and social distancing, she said. 

For executives like Jen Grant, CEO of the Campbell, California-based app-development platform Appify — which announced in June that vaccinations would be required as the company moved toward a hybrid work arrangement — helping ensure employees were vaccinated was a matter of teamwork. 

Some employees were “a little hesitant and nervous” about getting the shot at first, or became frustrated because of the initial difficulty in securing an appointment for the vaccine, said Grant, whose company’s clients include Tim Horton’s and TataMD. But eventually, with the encouragement of their coworkers, all team members came aboard — except for two holdouts, who later agreed to have the vaccine. “We focused on how much we wanted to see each other in person and be together, and how much we didn’t want to have to wear masks in the office,” she said. “The slow kindness and nonjudgmental encouragement worked to get those last two folks to get vaccinated, which allowed us all to come together again [for] our office reopening.” 

Mike Morini, CEO of Livonia, Michigan-based WorkForce Software, called the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the Pfizer vaccine a “game changer,” noting that because of it, employers that had been hesitant about requiring vaccines now feel empowered to move forward. The company, whose clients include Nike, Honda and Whole Foods, produces software that can support verification of an employee’s vaccination status and can be configured to prompt employees about health questionnaires to help HR teams ensure that the workforce is safe and complying with mandates.

Like getting employees on board with vaccine mandates, persuading them to use technology that enables such mandates will undoubtedly be a challenge for some employers.

“Business leaders should remember that when a company introduces new technology, employees often fall into various groups, ranging from enthusiastic first adopters to those who stubbornly resist,” Morini said. “Arming employees with knowledge of how tech can assist them in ensuring global compliance no matter how large the workforce will show them that the business is serious about seeking out innovative new ways to help workers in their roles as we navigate the ever-evolving implications of the coronavirus pandemic.”

3 Questions with Nici Bush, global vp, workplace transformation, Mars

Mars is halving business travel and letting employees choose which 50% of their work time they spend in the office. Explain how you developed your flexible working model. 

When we interviewed over 1,000 associates [staff], we talked to senior leaders from different generations, ethnicities, nationalities. And we realized we needed to reimagine how, where and when work gets done – not just where – to maximize productivity. That allowed us to think beyond just how many days are spent in the office and how many at home. So if you’re a young mom with kids and you’re juggling different priorities — the flexibility to do asynchronous work, and not be locked in back-to-back meetings — could be really useful. And if you’re a dual-career family like mine is, and you’re having to balance who picks up the kids when one of you is travelling and who attends parents night at school – the flexibility to schedule your work around these other priorities, is useful. We realized that was much broader than just a matter of going hybrid.

What are the difficulties in rolling out a strategy like this?

The big challenge is how do you provide enough of a framework for 32,000 people in 80 countries in 140 offices, enough of a framework that empowers them, when it’s not a one-size-fits-all. It’s tempting to try and provide more certainty than you can just to provide some sense of calm for a team or a unit. But we know that tends to create one that’s hard to do, we know that the most important thing is that we can be flexible, and we can ensure that within that framework, it works. No matter what the ebbs and flows. And you can imagine running a global business, it’s felt different being on separate parts of the world through this pandemic. And so the challenge is to make sure that you provide enough framework, and that you that you lean into that, what you don’t know and be open and vulnerable about it.

A lot of people will still be carrying grief and a range of other emotions when they return to the office. How will you manage that?

Prior to the pandemic we had a whole team around health and well being. So we have a structure of support, which associates can access for free help and advice around how they deal with personal health issues and those of their family if they’re dealing with mental fatigue, burnout, depression. And then as we think about coming back [to offices], and spending more time face to face, one of the other things we have always valued is vulnerable leadership. So, talking with people about struggles that everyone is having and voicing those concerns, is the first step. Because if you think you’re the only one having it, or you think that people aren’t really understanding where you are [psychologically], then I think it becomes even worse. It’s really important to give permission for everyone to be vulnerable. Sometimes a leader needs to take the first step and be vulnerable themselves. 

Read the full interview here.

By the numbers

  • Gen Z (up to 24 years old) is the least satisfied generation at work, with only 56% satisfied with work-life balance and 59% with their job overall, in a report interviewing 3,400 enterprise workers.
    [Source of data: Adobe’s Future of Time report.]
  • Organizations are forecast to spend $656 billion on future-of-work technologies in 2021.
    [Source of data: IDC Spending Guide.]
  • 51% of 297 employees who reported their COVID-positive diagnosis to employers, felt judged by their colleagues as a result.
    [Source of data: Skynova survey.]

What else we’ve covered

  •  The face-to-face engagement that defined so much of sales culture in the past has taken a big hit over the last 18 months. And while technology has become an essential tool for the sales function during the pandemic, the real secret sauce is the embrace of empathy and creativity as the soft skills for salespeople.
  • Burnout is plaguing the U.S. workforce. Since March 2020, a myriad of factors have contributed to employee burnout, including trying to stay healthy during a deadly pandemic, dealing with financial hardships from the ensuing recession, and — for many —navigating working remotely. But new factors have come into the mix following the vaccine rollout this spring. 
  • The five-day office workweek is dead in the media industry, according to new Digiday+ research

    This email briefing is edited by Jessica Davies, managing editor, Future of Work.
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