Delta Surges, Omicron Emerges: Employers Rewrite Their Return-to-Office Playbooks

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December 22, 2021


The Story

As many areas of the world grappled with a surge in the COVID-19 pandemic fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant, news came in late November of another variant: Omicron.

Researchers were still determining the severity of the Omicron variant in mid-December. But, for employers advancing plans to return office-based workers to the office, the impact of the new variants — and the others likely to follow — looks set to be significant and long-lasting. Plans to address any future surges must be part of businesses’ return-to-office playbooks.

“Because of the combination of the Delta and Omicron variants, we are expecting a substantial surge as we go into the final weeks of December,” says Dr. Neal Mills, chief medical officer at Aon. “The question is how long that surge will last. Employers are beginning to grapple with the fact that this may impact their return to office, which for many organizations had been planned for the last weeks of January.”

Why It Matters

The Delta variant remained the dominant COVID-19 strain in many regions in mid-December, though experts expected the greater transmissibility of Omicron to make it the leading source of infection in short order. Regardless, as the world prepared for the holiday season, it was clear the pandemic would remain a factor for businesses heading into 2022.

“Much as we would all like to be done with COVID, COVID is not done with us,” says Nancy Green, executive vice president at Aon and co-leader with Mills of Aon’s Global COVID Task Force. “Organizations need to make decisions that recognize COVID is still a global problem and may continue to be a concern into 2022.”

“We should not make plans that ignore COVID and the potential volatility that it can introduce into the business, either directly or indirectly,” Green says. “From impacts on health and human capital planning to supply chain implications, the landscape continues to evolve. This is why the ability to flex is key.”

Coping with a Changing Foe

The key to limiting the spread of COVID so that it doesn’t impact vital health services is vaccination. As Green notes, “vaccination works.” Employers should continue to encourage employee vaccinations, as well as boosters where they’re available. Some might consider tapping the services of third-party experts to support their employee vaccination outreach efforts, explaining vaccine safety to unvaccinated workers, answering their questions and promoting the value of vaccination.

At the same time, employers also should consider programs to track employee vaccination and testing.

“Whether they pull the trigger is up to that employer, but I think every employer would be well served to at least do their due diligence on the technology to facilitate that kind of tracking,” Green says.

This is particularly true in the U.S. where the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on December 17 that the Biden Administration’s COVID vaccine mandate for large employers (which had been paused pending litigation) could proceed. Although there may be a further appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, this decision indicates that private U.S. organizations with 100 or more employees should prepare to comply with the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS). It is unclear if due dates in the OSHA ETS will be adjusted to reflect the enforcement delay that litigation has caused, but employers should recognize the need to act quickly.

Employers also should take steps to maintain “situational awareness” of developments both with the disease and with changing government requirements in the areas in which they operate. That awareness needs to exist within the organization as well, enabling a 360-degree view of how any pandemic-related actions might ripple across the organization.

The current status of the pandemic also provides an opportunity for employers to reassess health and wellbeing benefits offerings, Mills suggests.

“It’s a great time for employers to reevaluate or revisit their population health strategies,” he says. “Ensure these strategies help those with chronic conditions, and make sure that those are maximally managed since many of those with chronic conditions happen to be most susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 and COVID.”

Flexibility Remains Essential

The pandemic has forced employers to be flexible from the outset. The new variants underscore the need for continued flexibility.

“The way things look today could look different tomorrow, and your plans need to be focused on what you know today versus what you knew yesterday,” says Green. “As businesses build out their playbook for the future it’s important to take a look at what helped them be flexible to this point and make sure that their future planning includes some of those elements of surveillance and situational awareness. You want to build out your playbook to maintain a flexible platform to make good decisions.”

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