11 Tough Omicron Questions

With the waiting game on, our experts weigh in on the latest COVID variant. 

The headlines are creating chills for many, and with news of Omicron spreading across Africa and Europe, executives worldwide are bracing themselves. “Everyone is holding their breath while waiting for three pieces of information,” says David Vied, global sector leader of the Medical Devices and Diagnostics practice at Korn Ferry. “What’s the severity of illness? How does Omicron affect different populations? And what is the effectiveness of the vaccines?” In the space of days, the threat of Omicron has created so many immediate challenges that most leaders feel they need to pause, reflect, and then wait. Here’s what our experts say about the top concerns facing C-suites this week:

What should be my first move as a leader?

“Call your people,” says Vied, and not to deliver a missive. “Ask how they’re doing, how they’re reacting, how their families are, and whether they have loved ones overseas.” Those conversations will subtly provide feedback and context, which will help you make good policies in the weeks ahead.

What should my corporate messaging be?

“This is an opportunity to reinforce that you care about safety, and to reach out and make connections,” says Elise Freedman, Korn Ferry’s Workforce Transformation practice leader. “Be sensitive to the fact that many folks have no choice about where and when they work, and continue to frame these topics carefully.” Empathy and grace, she says, should be your mantras.

How do I demonstrate to staffers that we care about safety?

“Ultimately, the real answer is testing,” says Jane Stevenson, global leader of the CEO Succession practice and vice chair at Korn Ferry. “If it’s a large company and groups of people are getting together in person, then testing is going to have to be part of the equation. Vaccination alone is not enough.”

What tone should I encourage among other executives?

Opportunity awaits. “This moment gives every organization the chance to redefine itself,” says Brian Bloom, Korn Ferry’s vice president of global benefits. “It’s the rare opportunity to look at every operational aspect of your business and see what makes sense,” he says, in areas ranging from global real estate footprint to staffing.

Should we reverse our back-to-office plan?

“Nope,” says Freedman. Variants and lockdowns will come and go, and it’s time to pick a long-term strategy, she says. “At some point, you’ve just got to make your plan and walk forward. If we continue to allow every hiccup to derail plans, it’s just going to get harder and harder to get back to the workplace.”

Will Omicron present diversity and inclusion issues?

Of course. “Racism toward African employees will likely rise, just like it did for Asian employees when the epicenter was Wuhan,” says Korn Ferry’s ESG and DE&I specialist Andrés Tapia. HR departments should be on alert, he says. Executives also need to remember that some employees are at much greater risk than others, he says. “Underrepresented talent will have greater vulnerabilities and barriers around COVID.”

What should my mindset be?

“This is the new normal,” says Stevenson, not a crisis. “We have to adjust to the fact that there will always be some variant going on. Viruses subside, but they never disappear.”

Should I make any announcements?

“Do not lay out an edict unless absolutely necessary,” says Juan Pablo Gonzalez, professional services sector leader at Korn Ferry. Instead, this is a time to listen, he says. “Stay close to your people and think through what people are experiencing.” Their concerns will vary: some will worry about potential exposures on a subway commute, while others might be stressed about childcare, he says.

Where can I quickly find best practices?

Keep your eye on the responses of companies in heavily affected regions this week, says Gonzalez. “Africa and Europe are three days ahead of the US” coping with Omicron, he notes. “They’re seeing more sooner” and can provide a bellwether of what will soon be happening in your neck of the woods.

Is there any positive news here?

“We’ve learned more about Omicron in three days than we learned about COVID-19 in three months in 2020,” says Vied. Though it may seem like déjà vu, this time officials and executives alike are much more prepared.

By the way, how is “Omicron” pronounced?

AH-muh-kraan. The emphasis is on the first syllable. No, it’s not OH-mih-kraan.