Business Leaders: Let’s talk about Reentry

Untangling the Ball of Confusion with Juliette Kayyem

Business Leaders: Let’s talk about Reentry

On March 1, 2020, we shared some sage and practical advice from homeland security expert Professor Juliette Kayyem as the early stages of the global pandemic began to unfold (see Business Leader: Let’s Talk About Coronavirus). More than a year later, we are phasing through what she predicted then as the “now normal,” the days when we would return to normal “ish”, and we are thinking about how businesses can and should approach reentry. 

Guidelines from the medical community and public health officials have often been quite technical, without practical advice. Advice has been at times contradictory, leaving many executives scratching their heads on how to get back to business. A former Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security, Juliette is the faculty chair of the Harvard Homeland Security Project and the Global Health Project. A frequent national security analyst on network and cable television, an essayist for The Atlantic and a long-standing adviser to mayors, governors and CEOs, she is known to many of her colleagues as “The Queen of Calm,” so we spoke with her to help us untangle the ball of confusion around reentry.

Let’s start with the good news. Things are getting better. 
While the rollout of vaccinations continues to scale up and cities and counties are easing restrictions, hopefulness is the prevailing mood around the country. That said, as Juliette puts it, “hope is not a light switch.” She advises thinking more in terms of a dimmer that will slide up and down. 

As a leader, you set the tone and your actions will be noted. Show leadership by communicating clearly and directly about what is required for the organization to return to normal. Be honest about your outlook and keep the organization focused more on risk minimization than risk elimination, advises Juliette.

Further, remember that the “now normal” is fluid, as it’s changing and evolving rapidly. Any decision made today is not permanent. Business leaders must think in the near term and approach reboarding employees in terms of present needs. That said, as reentry and reboarding continues to gain steam, it is also important to begin to consider and analyze the long-term impacts of this period of disruption.

Let’s get practical. Stay flexible and communicate frequently.
Throughout the pandemic, Juliette advised leaders to keep a steady “battle rhythm” of communication so that employees and citizens alike would know when and what to expect.  Keep doing that, she says, though the frequency can change; let your team know that you’ll be back again and again with information. Consistent communication is key. 

As we approach the end of April, vaccination rates continue to rise. At this writing, more than 30% of the United States eligible population is fully vaccinated, 50% has received at least one dose, and 90% are within five miles of a vaccine center. That said, we are not yet at herd immunity – the 70% to 85% vaccinated marker that will get us back to “normalcy”.  We are also seeing approximately 60,000 new cases per day, many among a much younger population than previously seen. We are bumping up against vaccine hesitancy and misinformation, which needs to depoliticized and treated with understanding and factual information. But we are moving in a positive direction and starting to get back to how we used to live. While our instinct may be to flip the proverbial light switch to the “on” position, Juliette says it is better to “move the dimmer up.”  The reality is we don’t have a clear sense of when we will reach herd immunity, but that doesn’t mean we have to wait to move to normal, it just means we must move there carefully. 

As summer approaches, it is a good time to stress test what your organization can bear in terms of reentry. Vaccinations will save lives, so it is important to reframe our mindset around vaccinated and unvaccinated employees. Juliette suggests thinking about unburdened (vaccinated) and burdened (unvaccinated) populations as a way of protecting your employees and their families and visitors. “Burdened and unburdened is just a way to think about privileges or benefits that will flow to those who are vaccinated and as something that may encourage the unvaccinated to move toward vaccination,” notes Juliette. For example, the EU has just announced it will allow Americans to travel there, but only those who are vaccinated. It is a benefit to those vaccinated; others are burdened. Professional sports, colleges and universities, and concert halls are moving in the same direction. Since employment laws differ, we recommend seeking counsel’s advice on any mandatory vaccination requirements if this is something you plan to consider. 

Here are some key questions and areas for observation and evaluation in a stress test.  

  • People: Who is vaccinated? Where are your burdened and unburdened employees? What kind of scheduling will be necessary for essential workers? Who must come in and why? What contingency plans are in place for business continuity? Determine protocols for ensuring employees with high-risk conditions can work remotely. 
  • Office Environment: Continue to operate with clear protocols and workplace etiquette, including protocols about masking and social distancing in the office and in large groups. Confirm any landlord policies for building entry and occupation and determine building ventilation, cleanliness and safety standards. 
  • External Environment: When are people arriving and departing the worksite? The goal is to reduce volume and minimize density. 

Juliette explains the goal of such a stress test will be to evaluate what is working and what is not working, and to move the dimmer up or down as needed. Things can and will change, so flexibility is critical. Leaders who are prepared to adapt, who are transparent and who communicate with employees daily will reduce stress for everyone.

Let’s get real. Things will be different.  
There is no doubt the global pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. We’ve experienced abrupt changes and gradual shifts both personally and professionally. Business theory delineates four stages of disruption with the final phase defined by a period of reimagination. This is a useful frame of mind as leaders contemplate reentry for individual businesses and across industries.    

As a starting point for assessment, Juliette points out two key questions to consider: what do your employees want and what do you want?
“This period of work-from-home has changed a generation of employees,” says Juliette. Recent polling by Harvard Business School confirms that many professionals feel they performed well during the pandemic or even excelled, and as such they desire more flexibility going forward. The survey of nearly 1,500 professionals who worked remotely during the COVID-19 shutdown from March 2020 to March 2021 found that:

  • 81% either don’t want to go back to the office or would prefer a hybrid schedule going forward.
  • 27% hope to work remotely full time.
  • 61% would like to work 2-3 days a week from home.
  • 18% want to go back to the office full time.

As business leaders consider their preferences for how the organization will best operate, they should consider how this will become a competitive advantage or disadvantage as we move past disruption into a reimagined work environment. Work-from-home may become work-from-anywhere, and this is a benefit highly talented employees may begin to demand. Employers that are able to find balance and accommodate flexibility will be better positioned to win. 

While reentry can be anxiety-inducing, the momentum from this “now normal” to tomorrow’s “new normal” brings hope. Business leaders who are flexible, transparent and open to change will be poised for success in the year ahead.