False Confidence over Omicron?

Most firms feel ready to deal with fallout from the new variant, but experts worry it may expose cracks in their strategies.

The company thought it was ready: the back-to-office policy was in action, along with generous benefit programs, including employee access to extra COVID-19 sick leave and a mix of mental- health benefits and on-site nursing care to keep the business running as usual. But the organization hadn’t thought through what happens if parents stay home because of school closures, or if the local healthcare system spins into crisis, or if high-risk employees refuse to work in the office.

Across the country, most companies say that despite the headlines about Omicron, they feel prepared and bolstered by their past two years of experience dealing with the virus. But experts worry it’s a false confidence, that firms still have gaps in their planning that could shift Omicron from a mild setback to a major one at some businesses. “Companies that are holding their breath, thinking about getting employees back to work and returning to normal — they’re stuck,” says David Vied, global sector leader for Korn Ferry’s Medical Devices and Diagnostics practice. “There will be no return to normal. After Omicron, there will be some other disruption.”

To be sure, some companies are in a strong position because of long-term strategizing that has dealt with changing conditions flexibly while prioritizing worker well-being. “They put a lot of thought and analysis into how they responded to COVID and the Delta variant, and they have confidence in that and are holding steady with what they’ve already put in place,” says Bradford Frank, senior client partner in the Technology practice at Korn Ferry. But many have not created plans that will function in the ongoing upheaval. “Everyone needs to find ways to structure their cultures toward long-term accommodation,” says Vied. This includes meeting the widely varying needs of workers whose health risks, caretaking commitments, and willingness to commute are variable and fluctuating.

The first step is to let employees know that the company is closely tracking the variant and prioritizing safety, says Elise Freedman, Workforce Transformation practice leader at Korn Ferry. “Communicate that you’re aware of Omicron, watching the data, and being thoughtful about future plans.” It’s an opportunity to connect with employees, she says.

Smart companies have also found a marketing tactic, despite unpredictable holiday- and spring-season sales: targeting sales paths that are less vulnerable to lockdowns or staff shortages.  “We’re seeing a heavy focus on digital marketing and on personalized messaging about products companies think a customer will want,” says marketing expert Ann Vogl, senior client partner at Korn Ferry. For example, a consumer company might launch a campaign aimed at individual consumers based on their profiles, for sales that can be completed online or through store pickup.

Among retailers, who are arguably the most vulnerable to COVID’s day-to-day impact, Omicron is not the most pressing concern. “Retailers have enough on their plate,” says retail expert Craig Rowley, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry. “They are staying the course and watching to see how fast the Omicron virus spreads.” Their bigger challenge: how US courts will settle the Administration’s vaccination mandate. The stress comes from non-healthcare organizations having to learn how to offer weekly tests to unvaccinated employees. A retailer with 40,000 employees may need to test 12,000 employees weekly across 1,000 stores. “Does the country have enough tests available?” asks Rowley. “And just think about the logistics of getting the tests and recording results.”

Freedman emphasizes that Omicron is just one of a series of disruptive waves likely to roll in during the coming year. “For those who haven’t stepped back and figured out a real long-term strategy, this is not going to be the last of this,” she says.