2021. A new year. A new era in the COVID-19 pandemic. As the widespread vaccine rollout gets underway, businesses are grappling with many questions. While vaccine rollout policies are being handled by governments and will later be addressed by legal and HR, service leaders must wade through the uncertainty and consider the implications of the vaccine on their business.
How will the vaccine impact their ability to provide customer service? How will the company’s vaccine-related decisions affect their customers and employees? How will the company itself be impacted from an operational and legal perspective? Let’s dive into the considerations that may affect future policies for employee vaccinations.
Impact of Vaccine on Customers
The upcoming vaccine rollout is expected to shape customer expectations for service. During the pandemic, enterprises faced unprecedented operational challenges in their ability to deliver customer service. Significant safety restrictions forced many companies to adapt their support models to meet consumer preference for remote contactless service and avoid technician visits due to safety concerns. In a recent survey, 65% of consumers stated that they would rather avoid technician visits due to safety concerns unless absolutely necessary. One in eight (12%) consumers said that they would choose to avoid the visit at any cost.
According to the same survey, consumers will still expect companies to ensure their safety even after the vaccine is available. If a technician visit is required, 45% of respondents say they would prefer to know that the technician was vaccinated, and 34% said they would allow the visit only if the technician was vaccinated. Almost half (49%) said they would prefer a brand that encourages their techs to be vaccinated.
Although life is expected to go back to normal in the near future due to the vaccine, there has been a lasting shift in consumers’ attitudes towards remote support. 42% of consumers indicated that — even after the pandemic — they would prefer to get remote support and avoid technician visits altogether.
Impact of Vaccine on Employees
When considering whether to require employees to be vaccinated – or simply encourage them to do so — enterprises must understand that their decision can significantly affect employee sentiment. According to a survey by Gartner, 62% of companies plan to encourage employees to get vaccinated, without requiring it. Only 7% said their organization would require employees to be vaccinated before returning to the workplace. This sentiment is not aligned with employee expectations, as more than half of employees surveyed by Gartner said they expect their employers to mandate vaccinations.
Does job type matter – such as those in the field and those providing service remotely?
Vaccination Policies for Field Service Technicians
While in many industries, field services shifted to remote support, there are still plenty of cases where physical visits are still required, placing frontline technicians at greater risk, and therefore possibly at a higher priority for the vaccine. This is especially important considering the aging workforce involved in field service.
In addition, many enterprises are choosing to outsource some or all of their field work to third-party service contractors, adding additional complexities in enforcing any employer-mandated vaccination policy.
Vaccination Policies for Contact Center Agents
Unlike technicians, contact center agents work remotely without physical contact with customers. However, their workplace environment is often a crowded contact center with lots of open spaces. The Gartner poll indicates that once the vaccine is widely available, some companies plan to scale back workplace safety measures, including masks and social distancing requirements, as well as the limits on the number of employees allowed in conference rooms. The shift to more lenient measures means the employer’s vaccination policy will directly affect the return to office experience for agents who are not vaccinated.
Impact of Vaccine on Operations
The days of the 9-to-5 workday with staff sitting behind a desk may be over. With so many employees working from home during the pandemic, it’s reasonable to assume that many will choose to continue working remotely even after they are vaccinated in the future. In fact, in a survey by Boston Consulting Group, 60% of employees indicated that they want flexibility both for where and when they work.
This desire for flexibility includes field technicians, who have been increasingly working from their homes, cars or back offices, smartphones in hand, providing customers with remote support from a safe distance.
For those coming back to the office post-vaccine, how will the office of the future be altered to accommodate safety-conscious staff? Commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield has developed guidelines to assist companies when planning for the return-to-work future. The firm also provides a handy how-to guide on their website to help companies take a phased approach toward returning employees to the office, the contact center, or the field.
Similarly, for those technicians returning to the field, companies will need to consider the actions necessary to keep their staff safe when a dispatch is required. This may include providing them with PPE, allowing visual evidence of a completed job rather than a signature, and scheduling work orders during off-hours at a high-traffic site.
Impact of Vaccine from a Legal Standpoint
According to Reuters, private U.S. and European companies may be able to legally require their staff to get the vaccine but are unlikely to do so without clear mandates from governmental bodies. With too many factors still unclear — such as the vaccine’s effectiveness and potential side effects — the risk of legal and cultural repercussions makes vaccine requirements an unpopular choice for employers.
Once the workforce begins receiving their vaccinations, it opens the door to a new range of questions. Can companies require those who were vaccinated to resume their in-office responsibilities while still allowing those who are unvaccinated to continue working from home? What about if the group being vaccinated is made up of older employees or those with some type of medical issues? Enforcing different policies for different employees can lead the company down the rabbit hole of discrimination.
Vaccines for Employees: What’s Next?
While the vaccination rollout may take some time, depending on availability and a host of other factors, and despite the uncertainty, service leaders can start preparing for its aftermath by raising these questions, polling staff, and opening lines of communication. Make sure stakeholders are aware of the challenges involved with the coronavirus vaccine, and ensure the company leadership is up to date on any governmental regulations that may impact future policies.
Employee communications at every stage are critical – make sure staff is on board and they recognize your role in keeping everyone safe – employees and customers alike. Take the time to solicit their input to gauge employee sentiment about the vaccine, and their thoughts about returning to work in the post-vaccine environment. Make sure company leadership considers employee sentiment when making decisions for the company’s future.
Despite the uncertainty, service leaders must start thinking of the implications of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout from the perspectives of employees, customers, and company operations. Companies have a pivotal role to play in the post-vaccine era, with the World Economic Forum survey reporting that 61.4% of employees said they would accept their employer’s recommendation to be vaccinated. But will employers take that step? And if so, to what extent? For now, there are more questions than answers.