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How New Mask Guidance Should Impact Your Return-to-Workplace Plans

May 26, 2021

The recently updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for fully vaccinated individuals has sparked conversation and controversy, causing employers to take a fresh look at return-to-workplace plans. For employers with in-person operations — or looking to resume in-person — consider the following:

  • Expect employees to hold different opinions. Reports show many workers continue to have serious concerns when it comes to the safety of returning to the workplace. A study conducted by the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics in early May of approximately 8,000 people across industries found that while 48% of people felt comfortable returning to work as long as they were vaccinated, another 35% felt their co-workers needed to be vaccinated to feel safe, 34% reported a need for social distancing and 33% wanted mandatory mask policies.
    At the same time, the updated guidance has sparked concern that unvaccinated individuals may use the guidance to remove masks too, potentially exacerbating the safety concerns of others.
  • Collect input on your employees’ vaccination rate and comfort level. Conduct a survey or consider tracking vaccination rates to inform any safety decisions. Consider the following:
    • Vaccination rate: Reporting on the percentage of vaccinated employees will inform whether new guidance has relevance in your workplace. However, employers should be cautious when requesting such information and limit the inquiry to need-to-know information that will fuel decision-making. Employers should also ensure they maintain confidentiality and, prior to unrolling such an initiative, consult with their legal team.
    • Sentiment on health and safety: Asking employees how they feel about current safety measures should inform — but not be the sole determining factor for — decisions about safety policies and procedures.
  • Adhere to regulations. City and local governments have reacted and will continue to react in different ways throughout the pandemic. Closely follow updates and consult your legal team to ensure any policies you enact are still in compliance with local regulations and employment and labor laws.


According to FleishmanHillard’s latest TRUE Global Intelligence and Talent + Transformation report, “The New Social Contract,” three of the five most important elements of the employee-employer relationship are communication-driven, with “receiving accurate and honest communications” ranking as the top element for employees. Consider the following approaches that embrace accuracy and honesty — and will help drive internal alignment, employee trust and adoption of desired behaviors — as you continue communicating return-to-workplace plans:

  • Strike the appropriate tone. Less restrictive mask guidance has been welcome news to many but raises safety concerns for some. Before planning a celebration, keep in mind that many people are still struggling — physically, mentally, emotionally.
  • Proactively share options. If you decide to mandate vaccinations, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws require employers to provide accommodations for those who cannot be vaccinated for health or religious reasons. Be prepared to communicate how employees can seek accommodation. Conversely, if you drop mask mandates altogether, others may not feel safe coming into work, so consider what options you will provide to address those concerns.
  • Explain policy differences. Whether because of working environment (front-line vs. office-based) or due to differences in local regulations, separate health and safety policies may exist for different employee groups. Communicate policy variances transparently, explaining the need and rationale for targeted approaches. In locations where separate policies may also exist for visitors or customers, provide clarity on how policies impact employees. But use care not to put customer safety above that of employee safety.
  • Communicate other safety and health precautions. While masks are at the forefront of the conversation, they are not the only safety precaution. Provide clarity on how your approach to masks does or does not impact other policies or procedures. Reinforcing why some safety policies remain in place will demonstrate a continued commitment to creating a safe environment for employees, customers, visitors and business partners. This may include testing requirements, social distancing and travel policies, for example.
  • And reinforce why. Whatever precautions your organization takes, continue to communicate the driving reason behind your decisions: protecting and supporting each other and the health of your organization.