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How companies can drum up enthusiasm for a return to the office and vaccines

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Key Points
  • Companies should pick a concise strategy surrounding vaccines, allow employees to voice opinions on returning to the office, and be transparent about how decisions are made.
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What companies are learning about how to persuade more workers to be vaccinated

As companies design plans to bring workers back into the office, chief human resources officers are contending with a plethora of issues. Do they mandate vaccines or simply urge employees to get them? How should hybrid schedules be decided and does innovation suffer when people continue to work from home?

These questions and more were addressed by Katy Milkman, a professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and author of the new book, How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where to Where You Want to Be. She joined CNBC's Workforce Executive Council's Town Hall on Thursday to help CHROs figure out the best ways to make long-lasting change and get employees on board with new ways of operating as we all move forward.

Pick a concise strategy around vaccines

While the United States inches closer to herd immunity against Covid-19, virus variants and a total death toll surpassing 600,000 are heightening hesitancy about returning to the office. Milkman said companies should pick a clear strategy surrounding vaccines to alleviate concerns.

There is a spectrum of strategies that companies can take when it comes to vaccines, said Milkman. On one hand, she said, it is legal for companies to mandate vaccinations before returning to work.

Morgan Stanley recently announced it will require employees to show proof of vaccination while JPMorgan will urge vaccinations but also require employees to log their vaccination status on a company portal before coming back to the office.

With mandates as an option, a swath of companies such as American Airlines, Kroger and Target are continuing to incentivize employees to get vaccinated through cash prizes, paid time off and transportation to vaccine sites.

If companies do not feel comfortable mandating or incentivizing, Milkman said they can take a "softer approach" by using communication strategies to encourage vaccination. One approach is emphasizing vaccines belong to employees. When people feel like something belongs to them, they are less likely to give it up, she said.

"Just communicating that a vaccine is reserved for you can increase vaccination rates substantially at very little cost," Milkman said. 

Be transparent with the return-to-work decision

While companies like Dropbox are allowing employees to continue working from home, others such as Apple and Bank of America are expecting employees back in the office by September.

No matter what plan a company chooses, Milkman said they should be transparent with their employees on how decisions are made and why the ultimate decision was chosen.

"The best practice is figuring out what is best for your business and, in terms of communicating it, doing so with empathy, clarity and the ability to have conversations with people," Milkman said.

Allow employees to vocalize their opinions

In a response to Apple's decision, employees started protesting the return-to-work plan in early June and urged the company to allow teams to decide individual plans.

There are two key factors in how employees respond to decisions that are made, Milkman said. One factor is whether or not they like the decision, and the other is whether they think the process in reaching the decision is fair or not.

"The elements that influence whether we think the process is fair include feeling like my voice was heard," Milkman said. "Was I surveyed? Was I asked for my opinion? Maybe you made a different decision, but at least you heard me, and other voices in the organization were a part of this decision."

Google initially planned to bring all employees back into the office by September, but later changed their plan to allow more employees to work from home, or outside of the office in some capacity. Other tech giants like Twitter and Facebook are giving their employees the choice to continue working from home.

"The emotional response people have to a decision like this is driven more by the procedure feeling fair than by the outcome itself," Milkman said.