What a potential COVID vaccine means for your return to work
November 14, 2020
RC Victorino

The distribution of a COVID vaccine will impact the timing of your return-to-work strategy. We will update this post regularly to reflect the latest news about all pending vaccines, as well as how this news impacts your return-to-work strategy.

The latest (updated on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020):

  • Both Pfizer and Moderna have applied (or will apply shortly) to the Food and Drug Administration for an emergency use authorization.
  • This means that the first vaccines could roll out by mid-December.
  • Both Moderna and Pfizer tout vaccines that are up to 95% effective.
  • Ninety-five percent is incredibly effective. Influenza vaccines are 40 to 60 percent effective at best (the measles vaccine is 97 percent effective).

The progress of these vaccines means it is time to start planning your return-to-work strategies. However, specific timelines are still up on the air. Several factors will impact how quickly your team can return to work.

Manufacturing the vaccine

Producing vaccines is complex. The process requires sterile conditions and precise control of temperature and humidity. It doesn't always go as planned, particularly when you're rushing to meet global demand under intense scrutiny.

Distributing the vaccine

Most vaccines need to be stored between 36.66 to 46.4 degrees Fahrenheit from when they're manufactured to when you get your shot. Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine needs to be stored at –94 degrees Fahrenheit. That's going to be a challenge in developed countries like the U.S. It'll be virtually impossible in developing countries. But the success of COVID-19 immunization requires globalization of this vaccine.

Fortunately, Moderna's vaccine needs to be stored at -4 Fahrenheit, a far more reasonable temperature that many hospitals are accustomed to managing. AstraZeneca's vaccine may be one of the easiest vaccines to distribute, because it does not need to be stored at very cold temperatures.

But the cold-storage needs of the Pfizer vaccine will impact just how quickly the wider population can be immunized. The more vaccines available and distributed, the quicker your return to work.

Plus, so far all of the vaccines moving forward require two shots (spaced apart) to achieve immunization. That means twice as many vials, syringes, refrigerators, and clinics, during a pandemic when all these resources are limited.

Fortunately, there are several other vaccines now in late-stage trials. If more vaccines prove effective, mass-production could help meet demand quicker, even with manufacturing delays.

Long-term effectiveness

Scientists have not been able to study this new coronavirus long enough to know, for example, how long immunity lasts. There are some examples of people getting reinfected. Research also shows that coronavirus antibodies dissipate over time. What's this mean for the long-term efficacy of a COVID-19 vaccine? We have no idea — not until people start getting vaccinated.

One possible solution to all this is a routine booster shot. That's not uncommon — we need a tetanus booster shot every decade to remain immune.

The question here is, if we do need COVID-19 booster shots, how often?

The impact on your return to work

With these unknowns, it's safe to assume that occupancy limits should be a central part of your initial return-to-work strategies. Consider offering remote work as an option to all employees during the early stages of your return-to-work plan. This will give you time to create a space your team feels safe spending time in.

The reality is, remote work is here to stay, long after the pandemic. Creating a remote-first mindset doesn't mean you have to eschew your office. Rather, it ensures your team is capable of working under any conditions, no matter where they set up their workstation.

As offices reopen: Create a hybrid work model

Even when the pandemic is over, companies like Twitter are switching to a fully remote workforce.

That doesn't work for every company. That’s why hybrid work is gaining traction — where employees balance between work-from-home and office life.

For example, while Google employees can work from home through June 2021, the search-engine giant is working on a hybrid model.

"I see the future as definitely being more flexible," says Alphabet C.E.O. Sundar Pichai. "We firmly believe that being together, having a sense of community is super important when you have to solve hard problems, you have to create something new, so we don't see that changing. But we do think we need to create more flexibility and some more hybrid models."

A hybrid model is an effective way to transition back from remote work to the office. It gives employees the option to work from home, at least part of the time. This also gives you time to revisit your office needs moving forward.

"COVID-19 gives us a chance to reshape our world and reimagine work." — Roland Busch, C.E.O. — Siemens

For example, with potentially fewer employees at work on any given day, do you need as large an office? Do employees need personal workstations? Or should you redesign your office into a meeting studio, like Dropbox is doing with its entire real estate portfolio?

Hot desking is another option — if you can prove to employees that it's safe.

You don't have to answer these questions right now. But as employees return to work, gather data to understand how your employees use your space — and how frequently. Then make decisions that benefit your team and company bottom line.

Even with a vaccine, your office is likely forever changed

Most experts agree an effective vaccine won't be widely available until well into 2021. Even when it is available, health officials believe social distancing and mask-wearing will still be necessary until the threat subsides.

And there's a strong chance that the way we approach enclosed spaces — from offices to restaurants – may be forever changed because we've become hyperaware that we all share the same air.

In other words, your workplace will have to endure a number of changes — potentially for the long-term.

Redesign your offices to support social distancing.

social distancing in workplace conference rooms.

Creating six-foot buffers around every seat is a must for now, and will help your employees feel comfortable at work.

Creating one-way traffic patterns throughout your office, will help employees minimize crossing paths. Be sure to identify and address bottleneck areas, like entryways, where social distancing is difficult.

Monitor and limit occupancy.

Even with social distancing and staggered scheduling in place, unwanted crowding can happen. If you have a small office, this is easily manageable. But what about larger spaces with multiple rooms or floors?

Consider installing sensors that will help you monitor the occupancy of any space — in real time.

Help employees know when a space is safe to enter.

Prominent digital signage can help you communicate maximum occupancy and display the number of occupants currently in a room. That way you don’t have to pay someone to keep count at the doorway — and your employees know when a space is safe to enter.

Digital signage in the age of COVID-19

Maintain stringent (but efficient) cleaning protocols.

COVID-19 has ushered in the era of hand-sanitizer. It's also required space managers to maintain stringent cleaning protocols. High-touch points like water coolers and coffee makers need to be cleaned regularly to minimize cross-contamination — plus, employees want to know you're taking ever measure possible to keep them safe.

Creating a generic cleaning schedule is what many companies plan to do to comply. For example, a cleaning crew sanitizes every bathroom, break room, and high-touch point every hour, on the hour

But what if no one uses your break room for that hour? You shouldn’t waste resources cleaning it. Consider installing sensor platforms that can alert you when (and how often) designated areas are used..

Office life won't be business as usual 

It'll be quite some time before enough people are vaccinated that we can regain some sense of pre-COVID normalcy. In the interim, you must take extensive measures to ensure the health and safety of your employees.

But let's be real: the workplace and your workers are forever changed. While mask-wearing may some day become a thing of the past, occupancy limits and stringent cleaning protocols will likely remain well after the vaccine is distributed. The sooner you adapt your workplace to this new normal, the more successful you will be once the pandemic is behind us.

Getting ready for a return to work? 

In Return to Work: A People-First Guide, we offer nine guidelines to help you bring your team back to the office safely and effectively. Download it here for free.

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