Vials of COVID vaccine

The future of work happens in a world of continuous change, with multiple shocks repeatedly challenging leaders to adapt. The pandemic is no exception: What leaders of US companies thought about COVID-19 in May 2021 was upended by a cluster of new, disruptive pandemic developments by midsummer. By September, US companies with 100-plus employees received news of new federal workplace rules from the Biden administration that would require either vaccination mandates for employees or compulsory weekly testing for unvaccinated employees. Under this framework, leaders still face an important decision: whether to mandate vaccination or to institute a weekly testing regimen for unvaccinated employees.

Alla Valente and I recently released a report, The Business Case For Vaccination Mandates, in which we assert that there are risks associated both with action and inaction when shaping a COVID-19 vaccination mandate policy. The topic is rife with double-sided risks:

  • Any decision you make will alienate someone. New data from Forrester’s Future of Work Survey, 2021, demonstrates the lack of unanimous opinions at play: When asked whether “COVID-19 vaccines should be mandatory for people to go back to their workplaces, offices, etc.,” 57% of US workers agreed with the statement, but 26% explicitly disagreed (while 18% hold neutral views in the middle). “There will always be someone who is unhappy, no matter what you do,” one interviewee told us.
  • Attrition could result from any decision you make. We often focus on the potential for attrition from employees who oppose vaccination mandates, but employees may also quit if you don’t impose a vaccination mandate. “We have to protect the health and safety of employees,” one interviewee told us. One encouraging sign? Recent attrition rates spawned by mandates — while nontrivial — have been lower than some expected. Tyson Foods announced a vaccination mandate in August, when fewer than half its employees had been vaccinated. In late October, they announced that 96% had received the shots. Yet meatpacking is a high-risk industry, and your company’s results might be different based on vertical, geography, and culture.
  • Mandates aren’t a panacea, but they can reduce risks and unknowns. Recent Delta variant statistics show that vaccinated people are five times less likely to catch COVID-19 than unvaccinated people — a clear indication of transmission reduction. Yet evidence that vaccinated people can spread the delta variant means that mandates don’t guarantee that you won’t experience an outbreak. What you can do is lower the risk of transmission and the risk of unplanned outbreaks, absenteeism, and unexpected disruptions to your business.
  • Weekly testing comes with its own risks. What happens if you choose to follow guidance and test large numbers of employees but test kits become unavailable? With supply chains buckling, availability and access to testing supplies that can meet demand and timelines consistently are a gamble and could prove costly if they impact your ability to demonstrate compliance. And the CDC has advised that test kit shortages are likely to grow.

These double-sided risks mean that leaders have hard choices ahead. Several Fortune 500 companies we interviewed said that they had C-level leadership working on their vaccination mandate and return-to-office policies. The stakes are high in terms of human health, company culture, employee experience, and future growth. One final data point from our Future of Work Survey, 2021: Sixty-one percent of US employees agree that the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world forever and that we will not go back to what was considered “normal.” The tactical decision around vaccination mandates will be a success factor for how you shape your strategy for this new world. And the biggest risk is not making a decision at all.

For our full analysis, please read the report: The Business Case For Vaccination Mandates.

J. P. Gownder is a vice president and principal analyst on Forrester’s future-of-work team.

Alla Valente is a senior analyst at Forrester serving security and risk professionals.

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