Last week President Joseph R. Biden Jr. signed an executive order directing OSHA to issue revised COVID-19 safety guidance for businesses within the next two weeks. The order also calls for the agency to consider setting emergency temporary COVID safety standards, including whether masks should be required in workplaces, by March 15; a top-to-bottom review of OSHA enforcement efforts, which worker advocates, including Gerstein, have called lax; and begin focused enforcement on firms engaging in large-scale violations. The order did not, however, address the issue of whether workers could be required by employers to receive vaccinations before returning to their workplaces.
Employers should “absolutely recommend” employees get vaccinated, if that’s their goal, but not demand they do so, advises Ashley V. Whillans, a behavioral psychologist at HBS who recently surveyed 44,000 remote workers in 44 U.S. states and 88 countries to study how the pandemic is affecting workplace attitudes and behaviors.
“Make it an opt-out policy but have a formal process for opting out that doesn’t involve having to email your boss or talk to a specific manager in the office. We’ve shown in other contexts that having formal policies that don’t involve speaking to another person who’s directly responsible for your compensation can help employees feel confident in making decisions that are more aligned with their personal values and less likely to make decisions based” on how others may perceive them, she said.
“I think the workplace issues in our country so often are dealt with in this zero-sum way, where worker interests are seen as adversarial to business interests,” said Gerstein. “And this is really a situation where everyone has to make sure that people are safe at work.”
That’s just the beginning. The pandemic has jolted the foundation of a workplace model that had been relatively unchanged since the late 1920s: employees traveling from home to a workplace five days a week, between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., to complete their obligations.
Since March, employers have had time to reassess which jobs and employees are truly essential to the success of their business, while workers have been able to reconsider the daily demands their jobs place on their lives, such as travel, commuting, or following rigid work day schedules, and whether they’re still willing to tolerate them, said Fuller, who also co-chairs the Project on Workforce with Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Graduate School of Education faculty.
That’s led to once less-common trends like workplace flexibility, “work from anywhere,” and virtual meetings becoming more mainstream. With broader acceptance, Fuller expects many knowledge-based industries will move to a four-day work week, cut back significantly on travel for internal activities like training and sales meetings, and do away with vacation policies tied to an employee’s years of service. Instead, workers could take as much time off as they wish provided their work is done, an approach first embraced by Silicon Valley firms.