New Variant. Same Frustrations

As Omicron issues step up dramatically, many leaders look for new answers to their workers’— and their own—exhaustion.

In-person meetings delayed. Return-to-office plans shelved. Conferences canceled. That was what the end of 2020 looked like, and that’s what this December has shaped up to be as well.

The Omicron variant has spread throughout the world in a matter of weeks, and while scientists study whether this version of COVID-19 is more serious than the original, they agree that it is certainly far more contagious. Company leaders who had planned for a return to more normal-looking business operations in early 2022 are delaying such plans — again. For many, it’s a continuation of the exhausting holding pattern that has lasted nearly two years. “It’s obviously frustrating because managers are hired to eliminate uncertainty, and now we’re in situation where it’s completely uncertain,” says Nathan Blain, Korn Ferry’s global lead for People Cost Optimization.

Many leaders say that one holding pattern involves the policy of mandating employee vaccinations. While some industries — healthcare and airlines, to name two — pushed ahead with a vaccination requirement, many others waited for the federal government to impose and explain its own vaccine mandate. When it did, many businesses created systems to comply. But now that federal mandate is tied up in the US court system. “There’s a wait-and-see approach on whether federal vax mandates will stick,” says Mark Royal, a senior director for Korn Ferry Advisory. Meanwhile, leaders can continue to tell their employees that getting vaccinated will make them safer. (Unvaccinated people now make up the overwhelming majority of serious COVID-19 cases.)

Experts say if there is anything easing the current uncertainty a bit it’s that the leadership playbook for Omicron is similar to what it was for the Delta variant that emerged several months ago: stay in touch with colleagues, ask how they are doing, and reinforce the idea that the company cares about the safety of employees and customers. At the same time, encourage or mandate social distancing and mask wearing among frontline employees who have to be at the workplace. It’s worth noting that for now, at least, Omicron does not seem to be posing the existential threat that COVID-19 and the accompanying lockdowns brought in early 2020. “There isn’t anyone wondering if Omicron will bring the company down,” Blain says.

Another difference is that, uncertainties aside, many leaders now have no qualms about canceling plans. There is not a lot of handwringing over whether offices should remain open or if conferences should be held; leaders are just scuttling them, Blain says. What’s more, they are more leery of setting hard return dates for future plans. Too many leaders have been burned by setting deadlines only to see COVID-19 scuttle those targets. And many companies that demanded their workers return to the office this past fall have again sent employees home to work remotely. Now everything — supply-chain normalization, return-to- office timetables, conference dates —is filled with caveats.

While these strategies and tactics to contend with Omicron are familiar to many leaders, the fact that they are straightforward doesn’t do much to alleviate the mental toll being experienced by workers at all levels. “So many colleagues and clients are just so done with this,” says Elise Freedman, Korn Ferry’s Workforce Transformation practice leader. “There’s mental wear and tear on everyone.”