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Kelly Jankowski

09.15.21 / MSL Staff

New Vaccine Mandate: A chance to bridge workforce divides

Separate vaccine policies for frontline and office workers creates an unintentional divide. The new federal vaccine mandate gives leaders a chance to reunite their employees. Kelly Jankowski, MSL U.S. MD Corporate Practice, shares five ways to seize this moment.

President Biden’s announcement last week that OSHA will issue a rule requiring employers with more than 100 employees to ensure their workers get vaccinated or get tested weekly will have an impact on around 80 million private sector workers. One of the impacts of the announcement is that many major companies will be forced to rethink how they think about, treat and communicate with different groups of their employees.

Up until this point during the pandemic, companies have been creating a stark—and in many cases unintentional—divide between their corporate or office workers and their employees with boots on the ground. This was clear with the divide between remote work and those who had to keep showing up to work every day throughout the pandemic. But it’s also the case with vaccines. Uber and Lyft have been requiring vaccines for employees in working in offices—but not for drivers. McDonalds required vaccines for corporate workers—but not frontline employees. Kraftz Heinz recently announced that its U.S. office employees will need to be fully vaccinated before returning to the office—but not its manufacturing employees. But with the new OHSA rule, that divide could now disappear. The question is, will it also disappear from how you think about employee policy and communications?

Of course, there are cultural differences between working in an office, working in a factory and working as a driver. But continually developing multiple sets of policies or communications that often split by outdated “white collar” and “blue collar” lines creates a gap of inequality that not only challenge many fundamentals of internal communications, but also impacts the way your company is viewed by current employees, prospective employees and customers.

The new announcement evens the playing field: Companies will need to apply the vaccination requirements to all workers. In this, there’s an opportunity for companies to help bridge the divide between the difference types of workers they employ to build more a stronger and more cohesive company culture and to externally signal what their corporate values are. The key to doing so is in good internal communications.

Over the past year-plus, we’ve been working with a number of clients that have both corporate employees and employees working in warehouses, factories, retail stores and hospitals, and we’ve learned a few valuable lessons about the types of activities and communications that help build support and cohesion across disparate groups.

The type of communications strategy that works usually has a few central tenets:

  • Support and acknowledge all workers who have been working in-person throughout the pandemic. There is nothing more frustrating to someone clocking in everyday for the past year and a half than to hear people talk about the “return to work.”
  • Support safety procedures that are appropriate to the type of work, geography and workforce demands. This is not a one-size-fits all approach, but the factors you take into consideration in tailoring your approach should be clearly communicated. For example, if you’re using certain local health data as trigger points for certain decisions, explain that.
  • Communicate transparently about changes – especially if they’re happening on a rolling basis, or by team or by market. I have yet to hear an employee complain about getting too much information from their company during the pandemic, but people complain all the time about finding out things through the grapevine or that changes are happening somewhere else in the company.
  • Utilizing the right mechanism of delivery to best reach each audience. Communicating the same message to all employees doesn’t always mean using the same media – factory workers might appreciate on-site signage with updates, versus employees working from home on their laptop are probably best reached by email. But also ensure that there are always centralized forms of all-organization communication (for example, video town halls) to bring everyone together and create cohesion.
  • Celebrating your team’s work, culture and innovation. Highlight what brings you all together as one team, versus the types of work that separate you.

We’ve seen this approach hugely effective with many organizations as they have driven voluntary vaccinations, and now that large organizations must require vaccinations, they can follow the same playbook.

Breaking down this divide is important because for many of these companies, this is a bigger question than just a vaccination policy – it’s about redefining the future of work at their company and putting a stake in the ground about what they stand for. With this new vaccine mandate, it gives organizations an opportunity to better define their corporate values across the entirety of their organization by clearly and consistently communicating the new policy with employees and how they reinforce their values in this requirement.