COVID-19 vaccinations in the workplace: Four tips for employers to navigate the rollout

Employers must think carefully about communication

COVID-19 vaccinations in the workplace: Four tips for employers to navigate the rollout

The COVID-19 vaccine rollout is steadily ramping up as more and more young people turn out for the jab.

It also means employers are rapidly approaching the topic of vaccinations and what it means for the workforce. Australia's Fair Work Ombudsman recently announced new guidance for businesses, setting out four tiers of workers to help employers make case-by-case decisions on whether mandating the vaccine is lawful and reasonable. Though the advice will be welcomed, employers still have a tricky path to navigate when considering whether to mandate or incentivise the jab, or stay out of the issue altogether.

Across the ditch, Employment New Zealand offers advice to employers, confirming that the COVID-19 vaccine will not be required for most workers. But the body urges employers to help where possible with measures like paid time off for workers to receive their jab, as well as facilitating on-site vaccinations if asked to do so by health authorities.

Speaking to HRD, Jason Laufer, Country Managing Director for Qualtrics ANZ, said undoubtedly, employers will have a role to play in the vaccine rollout.

“The challenge for employers is meeting the needs of every individual in their workforce. It means tailored and targeted approaches that go beyond incentives are essential for businesses to support the rollout - especially with workers split on their willingness to return to offices unvaccinated,” he said.

“Employers need to act with conviction by redesigning workplace policies to ensure employee safety and wellbeing regardless of their vaccination status, as well as providing support and resources to those individuals seeking help navigating the vaccine process.”

Read more: Majority of employees support compulsory Covid vaccine – but CEO urges caution

Research by Qualtrics carried out in Australia revealed a sense of uneasiness about employees returning to the office if their colleagues refuse the jab. A fifth of respondents said they would not return to work until everyone is vaccinated.

The data also offered insight into the role workers want their employers to play. Almost half of respondents said they expect their employers to provide readily available information on vaccines. But a sizeable chunk disagreed. 29% believe companies shouldn’t get involved and let employees decide for themselves. So how can HR leaders proceed without alienating either side? Laufer shared four tips for employers to consider.

Inform, educate, enable

According to the Qualtrics data, the main support employees want is access to information and help securing appointments. Laufer said workplace vaccinations will only be successful if the process is as seamless as possible.

“For employers responsible for running their own workplace vaccination programs, similar to how flu shots are offered, it’s critical organisations provide a positive, frictionless, and transparent experience to employees, from accessing information through to follow up,” he said.

Asides from workplace vaccinations, there are a number of ways employers can begin communicating with staff. Internal communication campaigns should inform and educate employees on the latest vaccine advice and resources available to them, such as eligibility and how to book their slots. But Laufer said employers should go beyond simply distributing information to really promote engagement with the campaign.

 “For example, an internal Q&A session with a healthcare professional is an impactful way to help address any concerns or questions from your workforce. Similarly, providing employees with the opportunity to volunteer at vaccination hubs or discuss their experience externally can help drive advocacy,” he said.

New policies for a new world of work

It’s likely that at some stage, employers will need to look at health and safety policies in relation to COVID-19 and for certain industries, compulsory vaccinations will be a requirement.

New policy adjustments that facilitate vaccinations will be key. Offering paid time off to get the jab and recover in the event of side effects is one example that has been adopted by many businesses. But Laufer recommended employers look further ahead too.

“Longer-term, employers need to consider how vaccination status could impact their recruitment plans. For example, it could potentially create complications for jobs requiring overseas travel,” he said. “Employers will need to prepare for these situations to ensure minimal disruption and inconvenience to the employee and business.”

Read more: COVID-19 vaccine: Can employers force prospective employees to be vaccinated?

Prioritise employee safety and wellbeing when reopening

The issue of returning to the workplace seems to be dividing employees and could cause friction in future if workers feel unsafe sharing the office with unvaccinated workers. Laufer said if a conflict does arise, HR leaders should approach it like they would any other workplace disagreement.

Whenever workplaces do open up to greater numbers, health and safety will have to be a top priority. HR leaders should work closely with the facilities staff to ensure compliance with OHS requirements and high levels of cleanliness. Reducing the capacity on any given day by using a booking system or staggering teams in the office could be one option to retain social distancing, even once case numbers are low.

Take a collective effort

Finally, Laufer recommended that employers communicate the importance of taking a collective effort in the fight against COVID-19. The issue of vaccinations has the possibility to divide the workforce but it’s vitally important that resentment and bullying issues do not crop up as a result of the rollout.

“By engaging in constant dialogue with employees, employers can continually understand and address the unique and diverse needs of their workforce to ensure a safe and successful reopening for all involved,” he said.

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