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Preparing for the Vaccine Mandate: Why Transparency and Flexibility Will be Vital Tools

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Editor’s Note: The National Retail Federation (NRF) and the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) have requested that the vaccine mandate include a 90-day preparation period for retailers and other employers. “Ultimately, the more time retailers have to understand and adopt the [Emergency Temporary Standard] requirements, the better it will be for the health and productivity of the industry and the country,” the organizations wrote in a letter to the Biden administration.

The recently announced vaccine mandate, which will require all employers with 100 or more employees to make sure their workers receive the vaccine or take a COVID-19 test weekly, is positioned to have a major impact on retail operations. The industry already is facing a labor shortage approaching the holiday season, and the added pressure could further impact the available supply of store associates and other workers.

In general, American businesses are prepared for what is coming. A survey by PwC found that two-thirds of both executives and employees across multiple industries agreed with vaccine mandates as part of a return-to-office plan. “It surprised me, given how divisive this topic is,” said Bhushan Sethi, the Joint Global Leader of People & Organization at PwC in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “There’s a geographical split, a demographic split and a generational split on this topic. It’s an emotionally charged, divisive topic both in society and in the workplace. But there was quite a lot of alignment, and two-thirds is a significant number.”

Of course, frontline retail employees are facing very different pressures than the typical office worker. The fact that they have face-to-face contact with the general public means that some associates are eager for the implementation of corporate vaccine mandates (to protect themselves and their co-workers), while others have reasons to be hesitant (due to the contentious issue generating friction in some geographical areas).

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Retailers should already be planning for OSHA’s official ruling. Sethi shared several pieces of advice for companies looking to roll out mandates in a way that causes minimal frustration for associates:

  • Maximize transparency to minimize concerns: The vaccine mandate will inevitably make some employees uncomfortable, but clearly laying out why this is being done, the benefits workers can expect and exactly how any collected data is being used can help assuage their fears;
  • Whatever you do, have your employees’ backs: Leaders need to treat a vaccine mandate like they would any other stance, for example by making it part of the company’s core values and giving associates the tools necessary to de-escalate confrontations with customers;
  • Be flexible in your response to the holiday rush: This holiday season is once again shaping up to be digital-heavy while also labor-tight, so assigning associates away from store floors if they are uncomfortable can help retailers stretch the labor they do have.

Transparency is at the Core of Good Policy

Implementing a vaccine mandate, even one required by federal law, is going to displease some employees. Workers can be “vaccine hesitant” for any number of reasons, and the best thing retail leaders can do is let them know what is happening, why it’s happening and how it’s happening.

“Be really clear that we want to mandate vaccines, but we’re going to be very clear on how we’re collecting data and making sure that data is secure, and we’re not going to use this for any other reason,” said Sethi. “Be sure that the people who want to opt out have the relevant accommodations and still get an opportunity. Maybe they work from home if they’re not comfortable [coming back] to the office. Maybe that’s a temporary thing that gets reviewed in three months’ time.”

This same approach can help ease another challenge retailers will have to contend with: the disparity between workers in different locations. Office employees, warehouse workers and frontline associates may end up with different requirements depending on the nature of their jobs. Transparency will play a role in minimizing the friction caused by inequality on this front as well. Helping associates understand why the mandate is designed in a certain way can ease some of their concerns about the situation.

“Those firms that are going to have different rules, based on the kind of people with a physical workplace or [those that] work from home, are going to have to deal with the fact that it doesn’t feel like we’re in this together,” said Sethi. “Employees may feel that their safety is being put at risk or that it’s not necessarily fair or inclusive. Again, I think this comes back to being very transparent on why we’re doing it, how we are going to collect the data and what situations might cause this to change.”

Job Assignment Flexibility Can Make Workers Feel More Comfortable

The tight labor pool is going to make this a challenging holiday season, and vaccine mandates will have both negative and positive impacts on hiring. Some associates will feel more comfortable knowing that more people will be vaccinated, but potential vaccine-hesitant hires may shy away from jobs where vaccines will be necessary. With this in mind, retailers should prepare for another ecommerce-centric holiday. Associates may feel safer in warehouse and delivery roles where they don’t have to interact with the public.

“I think that my advice for firms that are looking to ramp up the hiring of people is to be realistic,” said Sethi. “Employees are really worried about their safety and the [COVID] variants, and vaccine mandates might help earn some confidence, but the more that you can leverage your existing digital channels and reduce the need for in-store staffing, the better.”

Shopper data supports retailers that are planning on making a digital pivot during the final quarter of 2021. A recent survey from Pitney Bowes found that:

  • One in three consumers will start shopping more online (up 19% from May 2021);
  • One in four consumers will start shopping less in person (up 16% from May 2021);
  • 41% of consumers expect to be shopping more online this holiday season versus their current shopping habits.

Retailers Should Make any Vaccine Mandates Part of Their Core Tenets

Even associates who are comfortable with being vaccinated may have some concerns, particularly in states where mask mandate bans or similar measures have been put into place. In these cases, retailers need to provide their associates with the tools necessary to build their confidence and help them minimize potential confrontations.

“What if you’re in a state that forbids mask wearing or has governors who are challenging the vaccine mandate?” said Sethi. “What if customers come in and are very concerned about this? What if there’s social media reputational damage against you? Be transparent and really highlight why you’re doing this. Those people in customer-facing positions need to understand what the protocols are.”

Luckily, retailers and other customer-facing businesses have already laid the groundwork for how these protocols should be handled through their existing mask mandates. Sethi noted that these were designed from the idea that a retailer’s primary safety focus should be on its own employees. Additionally, companies should treat these policies as core tenets of their operations on a national level, even if that means upsetting certain customers.

“I could give the same example on things like taking a public stance on Black Lives Matter, the importance of a minimum wage or gay marriage,” said Sethi. “What we’re seeing more and more is that there are some decisions that have become core to an organization. [Companies] will deal with the fact that there are different views in different parts of the country because it’s what they stand for.”

No matter how retailers plan on structuring their operations to accommodate the mandate and worries over the Delta variant, communication will be absolutely key to their success. The combination of transparency, clear support and letting employees know about flexible options will help retailers thrive no matter how the vaccine mandates shake out.

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