Dallas-area employers are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel as COVID-19 cases continue to decline and more people receive vaccinations. While there are more knowns today than unknowns a year ago, the workplace will not be the same as it was pre-pandemic for those who have been working remotely.
Between encouraging and hosting onsite vaccinations, determining return dates and flexible schedules, and implementing new safety protocols, business leaders face many decisions in ensuring a safe return of their employees.
In a recent survey completed by 156 Dallas Regional Chamber members — businesses of various sizes and industry types — 83 percent indicated reopening their workplaces by September. While 94 percent are not mandating vaccination, 84 percent are encouraging it, and most will continue to implement preventive safety measures such as physical distancing and mask requirements — at least in the short-term.
Yet, more than physical safety, business leaders are grappling with the psychological side of re-entry: motivating reluctant workers who have become comfortable at home and now prefer remote work, and those who are anxious about in-person work.
Below are insights from Dallas-area employers during the DRC’s Future of Work & Business: Planning a Responsible Return event, sponsored by AMN Healthcare. Dallas Medical Resource and UT Southwestern also updated attendees on COVID-19 variants, vaccines, and allocations.
The hybrid work model will be the norm for some time
While most of the companies that responded to the survey do intend to bring all their employees back (83 percent) and allow in-person meetings (73 percent) and in-person events (60 percent) by September, nearly two-thirds (61.5 percent) of the companies anticipate being in a hybrid setting with flexible working arrangements one year from now.
“We’re taking a volunteer-based approach to coming back,” an executive at a local financial services company said during the event’s breakout session. “We have noticed there is not a lot of eagerness to come back so we are rethinking our work-from-home policy to make it more flexible.”
Many employers are offering the ‘3-2-2 work schedule’ where employees work three days in office, two days remote, and two days off each week. Some companies are allowing teams and departments to determine their work schedule arrangements, while others are exploring hoteling workspaces. Their chosen set-up depends on industry and job function, as well as the need for collaboration.
Certain teams like finance and IT, for instance, could successfully work remotely, but others benefit from working onsite. A Dallas-area architecture firm shared that younger staff members typically require face-to-face collaboration and mentorship. Access to proper equipment is as also a top reason for returning to the workplace.
Prioritize employee health and safety
A recent nationwide study by office management platform Eden Workplace found that 85 percent workers want to return to the office, but about 3 in 5 (61 percent) want strict enforcement of COVID-19 safety precautions.
Dallas area employers plan to maintain physical distancing (89 percent) and mask requirements (83 percent) in the office in the short to long-term, according to the DRC’s survey. However, many are split when it comes to physical alterations to space — 46 percent of companies have renovated their offices while 40 percent do not plan to. Some companies also upgraded their air filtration system and purchased ultraviolet lighting for high-traffic areas. Others are adding screens to workstations, but social distancing is more prevalent.
Promoting vaccination is crucial to instilling confidence among employees. Most employers prefer employee education and positive reinforcement over mandates. Examples include providing information through flyers, fact sheets, and other resources (63 percent); hosting events and town halls (17 percent); offering onsite vaccination (17 percent) and offering paid time off (24 percent) and other incentives like transportation and cash payments (13 percent). Employees have even served as vaccine ambassadors in their companies by sharing their vaccination stories with their colleagues.
“Access to certain privileges is one way we are encouraging vaccination,” said the president of a local higher education institution. “This could include not having to log in and do a health check every day. For students, it could be playing sports or hosting gatherings.”
While most employers are not tracking vaccinations (54 percent), some employees are voluntarily sharing their vaccination status. No matter the approach, the goal for employers is to keep all workers safe.
“We don’t ask our employees if they’re vaccinated,” said an executive of an insurance company. “Most are celebratory, and we allow them to share freely. We have a ‘risk meter’ for employees based on their vaccination status, and we then provide recommendations of do’s and don’ts in the workplace.”
Manage re-entry anxiety
Preparing employees for return is perhaps more difficult and complicated than preparing the physical workplace. During the event’s small group discussions, a number of companies shared concerns workers have about returning, from fear of contracting the virus to work-life balance for parents, and even traffic and commute times. A healthcare recruiting company revealed that only 5 percent of their staff want to return.
“There is a psychological side to re-entry that we also must consider,” a Dallas employer added. “A lot of people are anxious about getting back, and there is also the conflation of people liking remote work and safety of going back.”
In the coming days, Dallas employers will focus on ongoing communications, flexibility, and building momentum with fun activities for the first day back in the workplace.
The latest on COVID-19 numbers, vaccines, and variants
According to Dallas Medical Resource, Dallas County is receiving its fair share of vaccines. With a cumulative vaccine allocation of 65 percent of its population, Dallas is 48th among Texas counties on the number of vaccines received as a percentage of population.
“We’re not arguing very much that we’re not getting enough, said Kristin Tesmer, president of Dallas Medical Resource. “The flow is happening very well. Now we’re going to be very focused on hesitancy, availability, and the simplicity of getting this in people’s arms.”
COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and death rates in Texas continue to trend downward. As of April 24, only 10 percent of COVID-19 tests performed in Dallas County hospitals were positive, and hospital volumes have decreased 14 percent compared to one month ago, said Dr. James “Brad” Cutrell, Associate Professor of Medicine at UT Southwestern’s Division of Infectious Diseases and Geographic Medicine.
At-home COVID-19 rapid antigen tests from diagnostics companies Abbott and Quidel are now commercially available, making it easier and faster for people and businesses to avoid virus spread.
In the last several weeks, the B.1.1.7 variant, which originated from the United Kingdom, has become the dominant strain in the Dallas region, accounting for more than 65 percent of the viruses being sequenced by UT Southwestern. Despite this, all vaccines currently approved for use in the United States remain effective against the variants, said Dr. Cutrell.
Vaccine companies have also begun testing booster vaccines to increase the duration of immune protection and to better target new variants. However, the need for a booster may not come until late summer or fall.
“This virus is not like the flu virus in terms of it mutating so frequently, so I don’t think this going to be a virus where we have to get a booster shot every year,” Dr. Cutrell said. “At least in the beginning, until the global pandemic comes under better control, we may need to get another booster.”
To view the full survey results, please visit the DRC Future of Work & Business resource webpage.
View Dr. Cutrell’s answers to audience questions here.
A version of this story first appeared on the Dallas Regional Chamber site. Dallas Innovates is a collaboration of D Magazine Partners and the Dallas Regional Chamber.
The event is part of the DRC’s recurring Future of Work & Business: Responsible Return to the Workplace series. For insights shared from previous events and resources view our Future of Work & Business page.