The World Health Organization has declared Omicron a “variant of concern” and this week the first two cases of the COVID-19 variant were confirmed in the U.S.
As the world awaits more information from researchers, corporate America needs to focus on best practices they’ve honed during the pandemic, say corporate communications experts.
“We don’t yet know all of the details of this new variant, but it is important that leaders continue to lean on the fundamentals they’ve developed over the last 18 months,” says Kate Bullinger, CEO of Weber Shandwick’s management consultancy, United Minds.
“[That means] closely following evolving science and [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines, communicating often and with transparency, monitoring employee sentiment and prioritizing the safety of the workforce,” she explains.
Yet when it comes to slowing down companies’ return-to-office policies and plans, experts predict the variant will not have a substantive impact, given that most employees are already back to some degree. As Kelly Jankowski, MD of corporate reputation at MSL, points out, “For all the media coverage of RTO, most of the U.S. workforce is back in some kind of in-person capacity.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ October 2021 report, only 11.6% of employees were working remotely because of the pandemic last month. That was down from 13.2% in September. In January, that figure was more than double October’s percentage, at almost a quarter of all Americans (23.2%).
“People know how to social distance, wear their masks and take other precautions,” says Jankowski. “From an internal comms perspective, it remains about being able to cascade safety policies down through managers and do it with persuasion.”
Companies do need to prepare to pivot, should science emerge that Omicron is more infectious, deadlier or could bypass protections offered by vaccines better than past variants.
“We recommend organizations avoid broad declaratory statements until there is more information,” says Peter Verrengia, head of FleishmanHillard’s recovery and resurgence practice, which the Omnicom Group agency launched in 2020.
“Any organization should be ready to move quickly, either in a stronger preventative direction – back to restrictions – or, in the best case, to a continuation of the recovery with ongoing precautions,” he says. “That requires good ongoing monitoring, strong clinical guidance, a defined path to quick decision making and planned steps depending on new information.”
Fortunately, he points out, “most organizations have developed those systems and plans over the course of the past 20 months.”
One area where the variant is already having an impact is events. In terms of executing both client and internal events, Red Havas has “taken extra precautions until we know more,” says James Wright, global CEO of the agency and global chairman of the Havas PR Global Collective.
Those measures include “encouraging masks to be worn, ensuring anyone flying in [for the event] has a PCR test before they arrive, and in a couple of cases having rapid tests on-site before entry,” he adds. “All depends on the type and size of the event.”
Wright says the firm has been advising clients “not to mandate employees to come to events of 50-plus people unless it’s business critical the person be there.”
One casualty of the Omicron variant is the agency’s holiday party, which will not take place this year in the form it would pre-pandemic. The firm has advised clients to do the same. “But this was happening before we knew of the new variant,” Wright clarifies.
Another effect of the variant is the mental toll it is bound to have on employees exhausted by the pandemic. Just as it was feeling like the world was returning to some normalcy, news of the variant no doubt heightened anxieties.
It also comes just before the holiday and school break, a time where people were looking forward to getting together with loved ones without worrying as much about the pandemic. Now that may no longer be the case for another holiday season.
With that in mind, companies should continue to make mental health a top priority in their in-house communications. “It’s important to acknowledge that each setback in the battle against the pandemic takes an added emotional and mental toll on employees and makes it more challenging to motivate people and keep optimism high,” says Bullinger.
“As a result,” she says, “continuing to prioritize mental health and wellness is a must for leaders navigating this new wave of uncertainty.”
Jankowski agrees, saying corporate America needs to remember how employees looked to them for information, guidance, support and reassurance in the early days of the pandemic and during other crises.
“For many people early in the pandemic and after, their employer became the most credible source of information,” she says. “Employers stepped up, and employees have now come to expect this thoughtful, ongoing communication. They feel it has been embedded into the corporate culture.”
“Senior comms people understand this, but I have heard of a lot of them going into C-suite meetings and seeing not everyone in the C-suite understands this,” Jankowski adds, noting that executives can lose the faith of employees if they are not accommodating.
“It has become an expectation of any employer now to put employee health and well-being first, so they can’t win with any of this stuff anymore,” she adds. “But they can certainly lose if they misstep with employees, both in terms of their loyalty and the reputation of their brand.”
This story first appeared on PRWeek.