With continuing virus outbreaks in offices and the apparent mutation of the Kent Covid variant raising the possibility of regular reinfections in the UK population, employers face a complex and changing puzzle of how to allow employees back to the office in 2021.

Meanwhile, with the NHS’ vaccination programme on track at the time of writing and the government’s Test and Trace programme piloting rapid virus testing in workplaces, we are starting to see how mass immunisation is fast becoming one of the essentials in any return to normality – this year and beyond.

Should the virus become endemic in Britain for many years to come, however, companies might face the possibility that Government-led vaccination might at some point have to be organised through workplaces or employers might need to organise vaccination themselves, as part of their return-to-work strategy and future workforce planning.

So how do employers keep on top of a fast-changing situation? How do employers keep their people onboard with their return to work plans when there may be employees concerned by or have cultural objections to vaccination? How do they assess people’s willingness to take part in tests or vaccination?

While no-nonsense work policies on the lines of ‘no jab, no’ job’ approach may be tempting for some bosses, the issue is far from straightforward, and such arbitrary approaches are simply in conflict with current UK employment legislation.

Under UK employment law, organisations cannot force their people to accept vaccination at work or oblige people to accept it as a guarantee of working going forward.

Employers that do not already mandate vaccinations as part of their health and safety regulations should think very carefully about going down this route: it’s a highly complex and risky process from a legal standpoint. Companies should also be aware that existing UK regulations on discriminatory behaviour or unfair dismissal forbid employers from making staff act against their will. Employees with strong anti-vaccination beliefs may also be protected under the Equality Act.

Other aspects to consider include whether or not everyone will have equal access to the vaccine in the first place. There may be team members with legitimate reasons exempting them from the process, such as a pregnant employee or someone with a stigmatised auto-immune disorder. And to help avert any future claims from employees or their families that the employer was prescriptive or biased in the way that they applied its vaccination programme, the organisation will naturally need to maintain full private records of those treated and those that opted out — as indeed any responsible organisation will do with any matters affecting their employees’ health & wellbeing.

Instead, organisations should focus on reducing employees’ fears and concerns over vaccination as a means of improving awareness of the benefits and in turn increase the levels of take-up among their employees. Employers should provide all parties with full and equal

access to the science so that employees are making their individual vaccination decisions based on real facts rather than fear-inducing misinformation or rumours.

Employers should be making reasonable adjustments to ensure their employees are able get their vaccines. There is no legal requirement for employers to pay employees if vaccination takes place during work hours but senior management might need to be thinking of having a pre-prepared external media statement and social media messages ready, should their strategy attract criticism online.

Keeping teams informed

Keeping teams informed of the changing situation and any vaccination plans demands a carefully planned communications programme (including one-to-one discussions with the people management team for worried or self-conscious employees). With UK companies and public sector workforces having quickly and pragmatically adapted to remote working, there is a clear appetite for online updates. Employers are accustomed to delivering regular updates via e-newsletters, and gain crucial employee feedback on their plans through team or department-level on Microsoft Teams or Zoom discussions.

How to keep distributed workforces onboard

Tracking staff sentiment about returning to work and potential mass testing or even vaccination could be altogether more difficult for enterprises or fast-growth firms with different territories (each with their own regulations at a local level), divisions or offices.

Organisations will not only need to be actively keeping workforces informed but might also need to consider running regular, small-scale online surveys to track employee sentiment across locations and job functions. Timely data is key to understanding an employee’s worries or identifying wider workforce engagement requirements looking further ahead.

The encouraging news is that many organisations saw the impacts of last year’s shift to remote working — and specifically, the fact that line managers had suddenly lost everyday sight of and interaction with their teams — and began tracking staff views on remote working, individual wellbeing, and returning to work sentiment. Employees’ concerns over testing and vaccination requirements can realistically be tracked and their communication needs acted on, providing crucial insights for future workforce planning and immunisation needs.

Intelligent support

The Covid vaccine is an emotional subject for many people. We need to treat our employees as intelligent and reasonably wary individuals who ultimately want to do the right thing and need coordinated support to do so.