As COVID-19 vaccination distribution begins, organisations everywhere have critical decisions to make about their vaccination policies.

A Gartner poll of more than 100 HR leaders shows that most will encourage, not mandate, vaccination — but that’s not the only issue at stake.

“Ultimately, your strategy must balance employee health and welfare, legal requirements and operational considerations,” says Joe Coyle, Director, Advisory, Gartner.

“But like much of the pandemic response, your organisation’s choices will telegraph your values and drive your brand as an employer, for better or worse.”

Here are three key strategic questions to ask when planning your vaccine strategy.

Should we require that employees be vaccinated?

In a December 2020 Gartner poll, 60 per cent of HR leaders said they would encourage employees to get vaccinated, but wouldn’t require it.

Less than one-third of polled HR leaders said they believed it to be ethical to mandate a COVID-19 vaccine, and only 3 per cent said they would require employees to show proof of vaccination to return to the workplace.

In deciding whether to mandate vaccinations, remember that while many employees will likely welcome the opportunity to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, others won’t.

Focus any campaign to reduce scepticism on the recommendations of health experts.

Aim to reassure — not persuade — and make sure communication is localised, as levels of scepticism and even fear will vary widely by country.

As an organisation, consider whether and how to support pandemic-related public health measures and community vaccine programs.

Continue to role-model safe behaviours.

In the Gartner poll, 60 per cent said they would provide resources to employees on where and how to get a vaccine once one becomes available.

Remember that even if employees are vaccinated, there is no guarantee that others in their households will be.

If you plan to provide vaccinations directly to employees, consider whether you will do the same for other household members — and how to communicate your decision.

Key considerations:

  • Will we mandate vaccinations or not?
  • Can we and should we monitor whether employees have been vaccinated and/or have immunity? And if so, how will we do it in a way that doesn’t violate privacy regulations?
  • Does our strategy for offering the COVID-19 vaccine align with local health regulations and other employment policies, such as collective bargaining agreements?
  • What will our policy be for employees who are unable (eg, due to medical or religious reasons) or unwilling to be vaccinated? What accommodations and exceptions policies do we need?
  • What will our role be in supporting household members of employees, whether or not we offer vaccines directly to our employees?

Should we distribute and deliver COVID-19 vaccines directly to our employees?

Access to a COVID-19 vaccine, and the policies surrounding distribution, will vary by country, so be ready to develop regional and even local strategies. For some organisations, it may be faster and/or cheaper to vaccinate through the organisation (if possible).

In other cases, this may duplicate external distribution efforts or even reduce vaccine supply for those who need it most.

Key considerations:

  • Does it make sense (is it cheaper or faster) for us to arrange administration directly? If so, can we access requisite supplies safely and effectively?
  • What are the cost implications? Governments, organisations, insurers and employees may assume or share the costs, but if organisations pay, will we share costs with employees? And will that cost-sharing apply to all employee types (eg, part-time and contingent workers as well as full-time employees)?
  • Who will be vaccinated first? Are there roles that put some employees at greater risk of getting sick? If so, should they be prioritised?

How will vaccinations change our current operations?

Uneven vaccine availability and acceptance rates, and protracted delivery schedules, mean there will be no overnight return to “normal,” pre-pandemic operations.

COVID-19 vaccines won’t eliminate the need for social distancing and other health measures.

HR and other business leaders will need to run scenario plans to identify the ways in which changes to vaccine availability and efficacy could alter return-to-workplace plans, but it’s still paramount that employees perceive the workplace — and the vaccines — to be safe.

Key considerations:

  • Would an accelerated return to the workplace meaningfully improve employee and business performance?
  • What steps do we take to maintain safety (real and perceived) as the return to the workplace accelerates?
  • If returning to the workplace requires vaccination, how will vaccine compliance be tracked and operationalised? If employees are vaccinated elsewhere (eg, through public health systems), how will we verify and track their vaccination status?
  • If we have geographically dispersed workplaces, how should we handle the disparate levels of reopening and coordination among them?

As with other phases of the pandemic, the variables of vaccine distribution will continue to evolve. While the executive leadership team and board of directors will ultimately sign off on any vaccine strategy, you need a cross-functional planning team to keep tabs on the situation and evolve strategy as needed.

Make sure to include internal stakeholders, including HR, finance, legal and key business leaders, as well as coordinate with health insurance vendors and public health officials to stay current on vaccine costs, procurement, availability and safety data.

Jackie Wiles is Brand Content Manager at Gartner, based in New York.