How the Delta Variant and Fear of Meeting Up Are Affecting Employees and Employers

How the Delta Variant and Fear of Meeting Up Are Affecting Employees and Employers was originally published on Vault.

The Delta variant is spreading—and so, again, is FOMU (the fear of meeting up). To understand how Delta and FOMU are affecting employees and employers nationwide, we spoke with Rhiannon Staples, the chief marketing officer of Hibob (pronounced “Hi, Bob”). Hibob is the HR technology company behind bob, a cloud-based “people management platform” that helps companies manage, develop, and engage their people. Hibob’s clients include Happy Socks, Fiverr, Monzo, Revolut, Gong, and other high-growth companies. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Vault: We last spoke in February, before vaccinations were rolled out on a mass scale, before offices began to reopen, and before the spread of the Delta variant. Now, seven months later, what are you seeing as the main concerns that in-office and hybrid employees are having? And are these valid concerns?

Staples: In a recent study we conducted at Hibob, we found that 45 percent of American workers aren’t comfortable with going back to work at the office. Of the workers interested in returning to the physical workspace, the vast majority live alone and are therefore craving social interaction. On the other hand, people who live with family or friends may be getting the in-person social engagement they need at home and therefore don’t feel the need to return to an office to fill that void.

Of course, concerns about returning to the office are valid. People dealt with a lot of trauma over the course of the pandemic, and the spread of the Delta variant is likely bringing many of those concerns back. The lack of certainty around whether companies will go back this fall—especially with so many delaying plans—is bringing up a lot of questions around expectations and planning.

Also, for employees not returning to an office while some of their colleagues are, new fears around career growth have started forming. Many are concerned that they’ll be in the shadow of their in-office counterparts, their progress won’t be noticed, and they won’t be able to grow. Smart HR teams and managers are solving for this, making sure remote and office employees have a level playing field by leaning into HR technologies to bridge any gaps and keep everyone connected. For example, when meetings have a mix of in-person and remote employees, some of our clients have adopted the rule “everyone in the room or everyone on Zoom,” so no one feels like the odd person out or misses any part of that conversation—whether it’s a joke, side conversation, or critical update.

What do you recommend to employees who have a fear of meeting up (FOMU) and must return to the office even as part of a hybrid schedule? Should they inform their managers of this fear and discomfort? Are there potential repercussions for doing so?

If you’re feeling uncomfortable and unsure about coming in, you should definitely bring this up with your manager and with HR to express concern. Especially if you’re not vaccinated or have an underlying health condition, you shouldn’t fear repercussions at work against your own health. Most companies should and will work with their teams to accommodate concerns they may have, whether it's adopting more remote options, distancing desks, sanitizing frequently, requiring masks at the office or in public areas, or with other precautions. Companies with cultures built on the idea of transparency should encourage and potentially start these conversations so employees don't feel uncomfortable bringing these issues to their managers and/or HR—they will know it’s a safe space.  

What specific steps should employers be taking to make sure all their employees feel comfortable about meeting up and comfortable about talking about their FOMU?

When it comes to times of uncertainty like we’re in now, employees must feel that they’re supported and can trust their colleagues, managers, and HR teams. This helps them feel comfortable openly discussing their concerns. So, it’s important that HR teams and company managers take action to make sure employees feel supported. A strong first important step is to show authentic flexibility through flexible work hours, extended paid sick time, stipends for setting up home offices, or other perks. If a company chooses not to stay fully remote, they should ease into a hybrid work model, which gives employees time to work at home and also come into the office. This can make the transition easier and shows workers that the organization is there to support them as they navigate the changing environment.

Another important step companies can take is surveying their people to gauge levels of comfort. This way, employers can see what employees are requesting in terms of flexibility, office mandates, and technology needed. Often, staff is afraid to speak up, as they think it will hinder their ability to grow at an organization. So, anonymous surveys are a great way to get transparent, majority answers from people without potentially inflicting fear or causing alienation among staff. 

Finally, it’s imperative that HR is transparent with employees about their Covid policies, including cleaning procedures, distancing protocols, and other measures. It will help employees feel comfortable in the physical workspace if they know HR is making this a priority. Some of Hibob’s clients are also giving colored bracelets to employees that indicate how comfortable an employee is with distance. For some companies, this could be a nice practice, but as an HR leader, it’s important to find something that seems authentic and fitting for your organization.

Given the Delta variant and uncertain future of the office, how do you see FOMU affecting teams’ interaction and collaboration now and in the near future?

While the future of the office is still quite uncertain for many organizations and employees, we’ve now been living with this reality for nearly two years, so it’s safe to say most companies are well-equipped to foster culture remotely and build a sense of togetherness in the absence of a physical workspace. However, for companies still struggling to implement mechanisms that cultivate remote collaboration and camaraderie, leaning into HR technology will be paramount to achieving business success, as well as retaining talent.

It’s been talked about time and time again amid the pandemic that companies that don’t modernize and adapt to the new normal will inevitably fall behind. That’s why it’s so critical for HR teams to adopt technology that makes it easy for teams to collaborate and interact regardless of location. While companies were originally forced to do this at the outset of the pandemic, providing employees with the right workplace tools to do their jobs effectively from anywhere at any moment has gone from a nice to have to a must-have.

FOMU, as it relates to the Delta variant, has certainly become more prevalent following a few months where people let their guards down. While this undoubtedly impacts return-to-office plans for many companies, those businesses that changed quickly and embraced HR technology over the past year and a half won’t feel the brunt of this reality and will remain fully functional and collaborative. 

Have you seen any examples of companies handling this the right way? If so, could you talk a little about how they’ve handled it?

At Hibob, we’ve remained ahead of the curve when it comes to cultivating a positive remote and hybrid work environment. For instance, we’ve built a “work from office” request into our platform bob so that companies can manage who is coming into the office and when. This structure offers much-needed flexibility for employees so they can feel comfortable given continued health concerns and disruptions that Covid has spurred. Our goal throughout the pandemic has remained singular. We want to make sure our employees feel safe, comfortable, and protected in their place of work. We’ve remained dedicated to creating a hybrid environment that works for everyone.

Through our platform, we’ve been able to stay connected through daily updates about what’s happening with our colleagues, including birthdays and promotions. Our Kudos and Shoutouts widget has enabled us to celebrate others’ successes and milestones which has allowed us to feel like we’re together, even when apart.  By putting the employee first, we’ve seen benefits as it relates to not only overall employee happiness and satisfaction but also increased business success, higher levels of retention, superior levels of productivity, and a greater sense of camaraderie amongst staff members. 

Is there anything else that’s important for employees with FOMU or employers with employees with FOMU to know about or be aware of?

Employers must gauge how employees are feeling and make plans based upon these attitudes. If employees are happy, higher levels of engagement will follow. Considering a hybrid work model is a great way to combat the cross between burnout from daily commutes and the feeling of being stuck at home with remote work. Companies can try staggered scheduling—having some teams come in half the week and other teams work from the office on different days—or giving employees control over how often they work from the office.

Also, companies can survey employees to find out how they’re feeling about a return to work—including asking how they prefer to communicate, what type of workplace model they prefer, types of technology they’d like to have in place, and other details to ensure that employee satisfaction and happiness are high. If you conduct a survey, you must act on it. Companies that ask for employees’ opinions and don’t make changes or address them will often do more harm than if they’d never surveyed employees at all.