Just as companies began planning for their employees to return to the office, the COVID-19 Delta variant emerged as the newest iteration of the virus and halted the return to work for many. New trends are leaving employees and employers concerned about the changing guidance from health officials. 

Here’s What We Know

Currently, the Delta variant is the most common COVID-19 strain in the U.S., with more than 80 percent of reported COVID cases caused by this variant. Data shows that the strain may be as much as twice as transmissible as the original Alpha variant that emerged in early 2020. Even more concerning is that in unvaccinated individuals, the Delta variant may cause more severe cases of illness than previous strains. However, while the vaccine is not 100 percent effective against the newer strain, it still offers up to 88 percent protection against the Delta variant, according to a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Still, some vaccinated individuals may experience illness, referred to as a “breakthrough infection.”

How Employers Can Protect Employees

Recently, many U.S. employers have stated that unvaccinated employees will have to submit regular testing results. However, when tests can be up to $100 each, the expenses add up, especially when tests mandated by employers are exempt from insurance coverage. U.S. federal agencies will be paying for their employees’ tests, as some private employers are, which should be considered by other employers as well. Another issue dividing many employees is an employer’s vaccine requirements. Similarly, mask requirements are just as divisive. 

Some employers are giving their employees the option to remain working remotely until the Delta variant is better understood. One company, for example, was returning to a hybrid 3:2 work schedule. The new variant changed those plans, and they are now allowing employees to continue working from home if they wish. They plan to reassess the situation in a month.

Employers should focus on supporting their employees with understanding and compassion as this continues to be a challenging time for everyone. Many health decisions have become political, so employers should encourage employees to make the right decisions for themselves. At the same time, employers should create a work environment that promotes safety, with measures like continuing to perform temperature checks and offer rapid COVID testing. 

How Employees Can Stay Safe

Many employees were looking forward to returning to the office and were excited at the prospect of interacting with their colleagues in person. While mask requirements had been lifted, some places are now requiring masks indoors again. If employers allow employees to continue to work from home, they should not feel guilty about doing so. Some employees also sought fully remote jobs to avoid the “whiplash” of changing workplace requirements. 

Most employees believe that when they are confident that others are taking the necessary steps to prevent virus transmission, they will feel comfortable returning to the office. 

While there is much excitement about returning to the workplace, many companies should avoid making significant declarations about what their work will look like this fall. As the Delta variant continues to spread, instead, taking a reserved approach may be the best route. Employers should focus on their employees’ safety, closely monitoring how the virus progresses, and adjust accordingly. If possible, continuing to work from home will be the preferred option for many, and employers should support that wish with so much uncertainty lingering. Employers should listen to their employees, working together to find what works best for their office.