When New Covid Variants Upend Your Return-to-Office Plans

The year 2021 was supposed to be a turning point in the pandemic. As vaccine rates soared, companies across America geared up to head back into the office. Plans to re-open were put into motion and target dates were set. But then, the “hot vax summer” turned into the Delta delay as companies were forced to postpone their returns to in-person work.

Now, we face the ominousness of Omicron, a highly transmissible and vaccine-evasive variant portending more unpredictable months to come. As many companies push back their return-to-office mandates yet again, the back and forth is giving employees whiplash, further threatening company morale.

There’s a surprisingly straightforward way to calm (at least partially) the frazzled nerves wrought by Covid and its many variants. The key is to give employees a sense of control — the feeling that there is order and predictability even in the face of constantly fluctuating plans. To provide that sense of control, leaders need a return-to-office plan that contains clear-cut contingencies and is clearly communicated.

Why Control Is Critical

A century of research shows that control is a fundamental human need. When people sense that they can control or predict outcomes, they feel more content and can tolerate greater discomfort. For example, when an individual perceives that they have control over the duration of a painful shock, their body experiences less distress. This sense of control can also come from gaining information that reduces uncertainty. For example, simply learning details about an upcoming medical procedure reduces anxiety and speeds up recovery time.

Uncertainty, unpredictability, and a lack of control, in contrast, cause both psychological and physical distress. A person’s mind will go to great lengths to regain a lost or missing sense of control to the point of constructing its own coherence, even when that coherence is illusory. My research with Jennifer Whitson shows that when people experience a loss of control, some seek comfort in the internal consistency that conspiracies provide or form superstitious rituals to give themselves a sense of predictability in the world.

Covid has been the perfect storm for feeling out of control. The disease itself is unpredictable, and the portentous variants only add to this mix of uncertainty and fear. The re-opening of offices was a clear step toward a return to normalcy — the soothing possibility of routine and regularity. But the return-to-office delays necessitated by Delta and now Omicron have reignited people’s sense of powerlessness. The world is spinning faster and faster, and it feels like we’re barely holding on.

Create a Sense of Control Through Contingencies and Communication

A re-opening plan that clearly spells out contingencies already contains the seeds of predictability and certainty — recall how people feel more in control when they believe they can control the duration of a shock. Frequent communication lets people know they aren’t alone in the dark, similar to how learning details of a medical procedure reduces anxiety.

The most straightforward way to incorporate contingencies is with decision trees. Decision trees have proven to be effective in investment planning to prevent escalating one’s commitment to losing courses of action. More broadly, decision trees are invaluable in helping people clearly identify decision points and their alternative paths. The simplest version in the context of Covid is a decision tree that specifies the parameters that would shift a company from in-person to remote and vice versa. This decision tree could include specific markers for local transmission rates that trigger remote work or a return to office while also detailing how and when new Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines will be implemented. For example, the Minnesota Department of Health created a Covid decision tree for people in schools and youth and childcare programs. It defines more versus less common symptoms and close contacts and lays out detailed courses of action for each scenario.

To produce plans with clear-cut contingencies that are clearly communicated — the type that give employees some degree of the control they crave during these uncertain times — leaders can apply the Values-Perspective-Execution (VPE) model of decision making I created. Here’s how VPE can help companies get control of the Covid chaos.

Values

Any re-opening plan must begin with core values. When leaders clearly identify and articulate their own and their company’s values, their strategic plans become not only straightforward and efficient to create, but also easier for people to process and accept.

When articulating values, it’s important to openly recognize the tension that exists between competing values. Consider the tension between remote work and in-office work. Remote work is, on average, safer, and it affords many people more uninterrupted focus for diving deep into a project. But there is clear evidence that socialization, mentorship, and collaboration suffer remotely. For many companies, the push back into the office is, in part, a response to these very real costs of remote isolation. Thus, leaders need to highlight that re-opening offices is critical for mentorship, innovation, and support, while empathically also prioritizing employee safety and well-being. These articulated values should be used for creating the plan and its contingencies.

For example, the re-opening plan of one investment bank I spoke with was designed to find the right balance between the safety benefits of social distancing with the need for mentorship and collaboration. The plan required junior analysts to come into the office every day because of the need for skill acquisition and socialization that’s easier to come by in person. In contrast, partners were required to come into the office two days a week and focus purely on mentorship and collaboration on those days.

Perspectives

The next step in formulating a plan with contingencies is to get the perspectives of all relevant stakeholders. Getting employee perspectives on a proposed plan will increase commitment to and support for it. Without diverse perspectives, leaders may miss critical concerns or innovative solutions.

According to Glassdoor, the highest employee-rated CEOs during the pandemic all found ways to incorporate employee perspectives as they designed their pandemic work plans. Steve Hare, CEO of the UK software company Sage, introduced Always Listening, a live poll where employees can anonymously report their current perspectives. Similarly, Mark Aslett, CEO of Mercury Systems (an aerospace and defense technology company), distributes surveys to gather feedback and concerns, and Alan Hirzel, the CEO of Abcam (a producer, distributor, and seller of protein research tools), uses frequent video conferences to encourage fresh perspectives.

Execution

The final step is execution: announcing and implementing the office re-opening plan. Execution requires communication, and lots of it. When announcing their plan, leaders need to clearly articulate the first two steps of the VPE model: values and perspectives. That is, they need to explicitly state how the re-opening plan was designed to support the potentially conflicting values of development and safety. And they need to describe, with specific examples, how the plan was informed by the perspectives they heard. Furthermore, the plan’s contingencies need to be highlighted, again within the context of values and perspectives.

Communication is a key element of any execution. To offer the sense of control and predictability that people need, communicating a re-opening plan will be a continuous endeavor. Fear doesn’t hear, and Covid and its variants are a breeding ground for panic. Thus, leaders will need to explain the plan and its contingencies not once, but many times and across several platforms. This will involve frequent updates, even when there is no new information available.

As soon as a new variant is identified, leaders will need to communicate that they’re monitoring the situation and remind employees of the contingencies in place. As new information does come in, from case rates of the new variant to new CDC guidelines on quarantining, leaders must make sure employees know what actions will be taken and why. And even in the absence of new information, follow-ups on the monitoring process will be deeply reassuring. But leaders must remember that this communication needs to be reciprocal, with channels designed to receive employee feedback.

Plan for Contingent Contingencies

Even the most thorough contingencies can’t foresee all the twists and turns of the future. The contingency plan needs its own contingency: a mechanism for leaders to become aware of and incorporate unforeseen circumstances, unintended consequences, and unexpected reactions. No system is perfect, and, like the Constitution of the United States, every protocol needs a process for updating and refining it. Perspective getting and listening is critical here, as the unforeseen and unintended effects may be hidden from a leader’s view.

Communication is also critical. If a plan gets updated or altered to integrate a new reality, leaders need to clearly describe the changing circumstances, how the original plan failed to effectively accommodate the evolving reality, and how the updated protocol is designed to manage this new normal. And as with the initial plan, leaders need to communicate the updated one through the lens of values and perspectives.

When I was chair of the management department at Columbia Business School, I instituted the school’s first-ever search and voting procedures for faculty hiring. After spending a year refining our procedures, we finally put our process into a practice. However, we were immediately confronted with an unforeseen complexity: What happens when a search isn’t successful? Do we re-open it, or move on to next year? That summer, we created an amendment to our plan: To re-open a search or change any part of the procedure requires 60% faculty approval.

One industry that has effectively used VPE in dealing with Covid and its changing reality are professional sports leagues, most notably the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Football League (NFL). The NBA and the NFL have sought to find a balance between the values of performance and safety. Because all decisions require union approval, the leagues are already set up to receive perspectives from the players. In terms of execution, they have clear guidelines for when a game will be postponed and how local public health measures influence player availability and stadium guidelines.

Importantly, both leagues have been quick to innovate and incorporate new science and the latest technologies. For example, the NBA helped develop one of the first rapid tests in the U.S., which allowed it to be the first professional sports league in the country to re-open. Similarly, because Omicron varies dramatically in its period of contagiousness relative to prior variants, the NFL was the first industry to incorporate new tests that measure actual contagiousness to get its members out of quarantine faster. And both the NBA and NFL, unlike the CDC, have effectively communicated these contingent changes to both their employees and the public. Although sports leagues may seem far removed from everyday business, their dedication to the competing values of performance and safety, their incorporation of employee perspectives, and their execution and communication of their plans are a model for any industry to follow in these pandemic days.

Leaders who create office re-opening plans with well thought out contingencies while communicating frequent updates and check-ins will help inspire a sense of control that has so clearly been threatened by the constantly fluctuating state of the pandemic. Even if leaders can’t get Covid under control, they can, with the right actions, help offer their employees a greater sense of comfort knowing that a clear and well-considered plan are in place.

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