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Delta Variant: How to Readjust Your Return to Work Strategy

HR's most pressing FAQs around the COVID-19 Delta variant

Aimie Ye

by Aimie Ye - August 12th, 2021


Are you feeling anxious about the Delta variant's impact on your workplace? You're not alone. HR departments across the world are scratching their heads, trying to figure out how to keep their teams safe and productive. Many were just about to implement their return-to-work plans when the Delta variant put a wrench in their gears.

So, what can you do to keep your employees safe and still get things done? We've got you covered with our guide to the most pressing Delta variant FAQs. Let's dive in and find some answers!

What is the Delta Variant?

The delta variant is a newer strain of the COVID-19 virus that is contributing to spikes in cases across the world. The Delta variant began spreading rapidly through the middle of June 2021, causing a severe surge in many countries, including the US.

Do symptoms of the Delta variant differ from what we previously observed?

Though symptoms differ in severity from person to person, the overall symptoms of the Delta variant appear to be very similar to the original version of COVID-19. Symptoms of the Delta variant include:

  • Fever or chills

  • Cough

  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

  • Fatigue

  • Muscle or body aches

  • Headache

  • New loss of taste or smell

  • Sore throat

  • Congestion or runny nose

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Diarrhea

It is, however, important to note that recent research found that the Delta variant grows more rapidly in the respiratory tract, and thus poses additional health risks.

Does the Delta variant affect vaccinated and unvaccinated people in the same way?

Both vaccinated and unvaccinated people can still contract the Delta variant of COVID-19, though more than 97% of those currently hospitalized with severe COVID-19 are unvaccinated. CDC data suggests that the Delta variant might cause more severe illness than previous strains in unvaccinated individuals. 

Breakthrough cases for vaccinated people are possible, but very rare at present. In fact, as of August 2nd, only 0.04% of vaccinated people reported breakthrough COVID-19 cases. Additionally, vaccinated people appear to be infectious with the Delta variant for a shorter period of time if contracted, and symptoms are milder on average.

Should we rethink our return to work strategy?

With the sudden rise in cases due to the Delta variant, many organizations and HR departments are considering pushing back return-to-office dates in hopes of stopping the spread. In fact, a handful of large corporations in the U.S., including Google, Apple, and Lyft, have since announced a delayed return date.

The simple answer is: there is no right answer. If it is not imperative to your business function that employees work in person, we recommend staying put from home for now. Remote working severely reduces the risk of transmission among team members, as they are not required to go to the office. 

On the other hand, if it is essential to a business function that your team heads back into the office, make sure you check the boxes below before heading back:

  • Have we consulted with local health authorities about the status of transmission in our location?

  • Have we created a physical distancing plan or a blueprint for a socially distanced office workspace?

  • Have we re-architected the office to reduce transmission?

  • Have we implemented sanitary procedures for surfaces at the office?

  • Have we revisited our mask policies?

  • Do we have a plan in place for monitoring employee health and safety?

How do I make a case to halt the return to work?

As an HR professional, you have a unique opportunity to drive decisions around the return to the office, and whether or not it makes sense for your organization to do so right now. In the event that leadership is not on the same page as you about halting or delaying the return-to-work plan, here’s how you can build a case.

  1. Be prepared with statistics. It’s important to fully educate yourself on the statistics around the new Delta variant, and why you believe it's imperative for your team to stay remote. 

  2. Educate on how the Delta variant differs. Reference the CDC guidelines around the variant, and be sure to educate them on the transmission rates, the severity of illness, and how it differs from before.

  3. Review local transmission rates. If your organization is located in a COVID-19 hotspot, reviewing local health authority guidelines can help build a case for pausing return-to-work plans. Utilize county and state guidelines to guide your decision.

  4. Gauge employee sentiment. Sending out an employee survey can help gauge how employees are feeling about their safety and their plan to return to work. 56% of surveyed individuals in a recent study reported that their organization didn’t ask for their input on return-to-work strategies, and that this created anxiety for those who were not ready. If your workforce is not ready to go back, they should not be forced to.

In-Office Best Practices

If your team ultimately decides that it’s imperative to return to the office amid the Delta variant, here are some answers to supporting your in-person employees and reducing the spread.

Workplace mask policies

Generally, employers should follow the suggestions and recommendations of governmental or CDC guidelines to reduce the spread of the virus. The CDC released updated guidance on July 27, 2021 which states that masking is now recommended for all individuals regardless of vaccination status in any indoor “public spaces”, if you are in an area of “substantial or high transmission”. Masks effectively provide protection against Delta variant infections as well as infecting others. 

HR pros should evaluate the specific circumstances of their physical workspace when deciding whether or not to mandate the use of face masks amid the Delta variant. If you are introducing a mask-wearing policy, make sure to enforce it in a way that does not discriminate against any employees.

What should I include in updated mask policies?

A mask policy in the office should be tailored for individuals in the physical workplace, and should include:

  • Where the guidelines are coming from, like CDC recommendations, state legislature, or OSHA requirements

  • What an acceptable mask looks like and the proper way to use a face mask

  • A written notice around the benefits and guidance

What if an employee refuses to wear a mask?

If an employee refuses to wear a mask amid the return to work, and the CDC or OSHA guidance remains, we recommend that you engage in an educational dialogue with the team member about why wearing a mask is important. If your workplace mask policy clearly outlines the requirement, discuss this with your team member while staying sensitive to exceptions or accommodations.

If a disability prevents the employee from wearing a face mask, they should be exempt from wearing it.

How can HR help protect against Delta transmission in the workplace? 

Encourage COVID-19 testing

If you do decide to move forward with your return to work amid Delta variant concerns, make sure your team members are educated on where to get tested. In addition to Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests that take up to a few days for results to come in, there are now Antigen tests available to purchase for home testing, with results available in minutes. You might consider covering the costs of testing if you opt to increase the testing frequency in the workplace.

Re-establish workplace preventive measures

In addition to bringing mask mandates back to life, consider restructuring your office space so that individuals can work 6 or more feet apart. Improve ventilation within your work environment by adding more air exchanges, filtration systems, and air purifiers. Additionally, keep windows open if possible. Try implementing hybrid work or staggered schedules for various employees to reduce the number of people in the office at one time.

Delay your return to work plans

As mentioned above, reconsider whether or not your team needs to be back in the office at this time. Bringing the organization back in person inevitably adds to the risk of Delta transmission.

Should HR rethink workplace vaccination policies amid Delta?

With the current spike in cases amid the Delta variant, we advise employers to encourage vaccinations in order to keep employees safe.

Last December, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced that employers could require team members to get vaccinated in order to go into the office, with the exception of a few accommodations. If you do decide to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations, please consult with local legal counsel about policies as well as exceptions in order to ensure compliance. Additionally, you may be required to mandate vaccines per OSHA's ETS, depending on the size of your business. Make sure you also have a clear way to track COVID-19 vaccination documents if necessary.

Should we halt business-related travel?

If you’re reconsidering business-related travel, we recommend taking extreme caution when allowing employees to travel to places with high risk of COVID-19 transmission. If possible, ask employees to conduct meetings digitally in order to reduce the risk of infection during travel.

How can we support employee mental health throughout Delta?

In the coming months, as the Delta variant brings more uncertainty to the future of work, it’s more important than ever to attend to employees mental health needs and promote their well-being. Depression and anxiety rates have skyrocketed throughout the pandemic. Employers should continue to support employee wellbeing by:

  • Promoting virtual wellness activities

  • Allowing them to work in their preferred setting (if feasible)

  • Sharing health insurance information and mental health programs

  • Building in rest breaks and stopping points

  • Administering frequent pulse checks

  • Creating a mental health plan within the company

  • Encouraging positive communication 

While we don’t currently know what the future holds or how the Delta variant will continue to impact organizations, HR should stay current on statistics and best practices per the CDC and governmental guidelines in order to keep their teams safe.