May 27, 2021

Return-to-Office Real Talk: Delta's Kelley Elliott Shares Her Post-Covid Playbook

The Nava Team

Returning to the office after a global pandemic — none of us have had to deal with that before. (Knock on wood that we won't have to ever again.)

In times like this, our best defense is our community. By sharing ideas, best practices, and data, we're better equipped to move forward together.

When it comes to developing a return-to-office plan, Kelley Elliott has become a pro. As Delta's Managing Director for Global Rewards, she has overseen the company's pandemic response from the outset.

With 70K Delta employees around the world, many of whom are front-line and customer-facing, this was no simple task — but with nuance and sensitivity, she was able to build a plan that works.

Now, just a few days from the major airline's office reopening date, she's sharing her playbook. In her own words: "We want everyone else to benefit from what we've been able to do, because it's really for the greater good."

Let's take a look at Delta's return-to-office plan — and tips on scaling these guidelines to work for companies of any size. We'll cover all you need to know to welcome your employees back safely, including all things vaccination, mask policies, reopening logistics, and everything in between.

Return-to-Office Basics

Turns out, it's not as simple as unlocking the door and turning the lights back on. There are several things to take into consideration before you call folks back.

What does return-to-office really mean?

For Delta, this means that they will reopen their corporate offices to 100% of their employees starting June 1st. As Kelley put it, "The gates just opened, and you can come on in."

"Return-to-office means we're welcoming everybody back into this space," she explains, "It's about bringing our teams back together. We look forward to the energy and collaboration that will happen in person."

But before they can open those gates, there are several to-dos to check off and questions to answer. For example, cleaning an office that's been largely unoccupied for over a year. And updating Covid-specific signage (what once read "Contact Tracing" may now read "Vaccination Site"). And refining their on-campus visitor policy.

A lot of logistics and collaboration goes into reopening. It isn't something you want to rush. But once your teams are reunited, you'll be glad you went about it safely and strategically.

How should I set my employer's return-to-office date?

Delta knew early on that they wanted to get their teams back in the office as soon as it was safe to do so, because in-person collaboration is central to their mission and culture.

"Our [return-to-office] strategy really revolves around our business strategy," she explained. "We are an organization of connecting the world... So being together is core to our mission. It was really critical that we built a strategy right out the gate to get people back."

So they appointed a team of experts to monitor the situation, set distinct guideposts, and advise on the best route forward.

In early April, that team was seeing very positive results from their vaccination program, combined with declining local Covid rates. Using projections based on the vaccination rate at the time, they determined that June 1st would be their target reopening date.

But this strategy won't work for every employer. Just like it was for Delta, your organization's return-to-office date should be based on your unique business strategy, culture, and values.

Here are some things you'll want to consider when setting a date:

  • Covid case and vaccination rates in your community: The CDC Covid Data Tracker will be your best resource.
  • Internal culture and goals: Ask yourself honestly — is in-person collaboration crucial to your business' values and success? If not, the timeline may be more flexible.
  • Company composition: If your employees are primarily customer-facing, there may be more pressure to return to in-person sooner rather than later.
  • Your employees' personal commitments: For example, Delta intentionally set their return-to-office date after local schools break for summer, to accommodate parents whose children are still doing virtual learning.

Should we enforce a mask policy for our employees?

The CDC guidelines should provide a good jumping-off point for building your mask policy. After that, keep an eye on company-wide vaccination rates and your community positive testing rate, and adapt accordingly.

When Delta's offices reopen, all unvaccinated employees will be required to wear a mask, while vaccinated folks can choose to remove their mask.

That policy is contingent on two conditions, as set by Delta's team of experts:

  1. They need to see a 75% vaccination rate among their employees.
  2. Their local community Covid positive testing rate needs to be below 10 per 100K.

Good news for Delta — their corporate office already has hit an 80% vaccination rate, due in part to their incentivization initiatives. (But more on that later.)

But if there's any backsliding on either of these guidelines, Delta is prepared to re-adopt a mask mandate for all employees, regardless of vaccination status.

It should be noted that Delta does not intend on policing their mask policy, but simply asking (and trusting) that their employees comply.

What tactical advice can we give to our employees upon reuniting? (Or to put it more clearly, can we go back to handshakes?)

Everyone will have a different comfort level when it comes to these interactions. Kelley emphasized the importance of awareness and empathy when reuniting with our colleagues.

"We're advising people to only do what they're comfortable with... We just all have to be a little bit more aware of our actions and understand that some people may be different. We're not going to judge people for acting and behaving a little bit differently right now."

Vaccines, Vaccines, Vaccines

This was our most-discussed subject — and for good reason.

We cannot overemphasize the importance of getting vaccinated. As Dr. Marty Makary discussed in his previous fireside chat, they are the key to putting the pandemic behind us.

"It's all about vaccines, vaccines, vaccines," explains Kelley. "That has enabled all of this."

Should we require proof of vaccine?

This is where things get tricky. To determine your reopening guidelines, you need to know where your company stands in terms of vaccination rates. But requiring employees to divulge that personal information may cross some boundaries.

Delta is taking a two-pronged approach to this. For current employees, the vaccine is encouraged but not mandatory.

For new employees joining the Delta team now, vaccination is required. Later on down the road, that policy may change. But for now, this is what they've determined is best for the safety of all their employees.

If employees choose to share their vaccination status with Delta, they can fill out an online form and upload a photo of their vaccine card.

How can we incentivize employees getting vaccinated?

Delta has introduced several initiatives and perks that make getting vaccinated easier and more convenient for their employees, from offering an extra PTO day to hosting on-site vaccination clinics.

In addition to offering these incentives, Delta found that their employees responded well to tactful storytelling with an empathetic, human tone.

Delta's vaccination incentive messaging can be summed up in four key points:

  1. It's the best way to protect yourself.
  2. It's about protecting your family and those around you.
  3. We want to safely move on from masks and distancing.
  4. We'll be that much closer to reclaiming our lives.

"You really have to explain that why," Kelley explained, "and speak to their hearts more than their minds. At first, it was really about the science. Now it's about reaching people's hearts."

Still, getting the vaccine is a deeply personal choice. There are a lot of factors that go into that decision — from health to culture to personal beliefs. Realistically, no matter how many incentives you provide, it may not sway those who have already made a decision.

So instead of incentivizing employees to get the vaccine in the first place, Kelley suggests that employers turn their focus towards encouraging them to share their vaccine status with their employer. "This is a pretty big decision," Kelley emphasized. "And a little incentive isn't going to sway them [to get vaccinated] — but if they do, it might sway them to tell us."

So you've made your plan — now how do you communicate it?

You'll want to be strategic about this. The way you share the return-to-office guidelines will set the tone and shape your employees' expectations.

How should we communicate the logistics of return-to-office with our employees?

First off, it's essential that you give your employees time between the announcement and the actual office reopening date. This will give them a chance to get their ducks in a row — whatever that may mean for each person.

Giving a ~30 day buffer is a good rule of thumb, with the option to ease back into office life. Going straight from fully remote to five days a week in-office may be a shock to their system; you can reduce this stress by offering an interim transition period where employees can choose to split their time if preferred.

You'll also want to get a sense of how your employees are feeling about returning. Kelley recommends distributing a company-wide survey, and using the data to shape your messaging.

Ultimately, no one knows your teams better than their managers. Collaborating with leadership to tailor the return-to-office strategy and communication to each department may prove more successful than a one-size-fits-all approach.

After over a year of stress and changes, though, you may choose to add a positive spin to your messaging. Reuniting after such a long time apart should be cause for celebration. So why not make it one?

Looking back on the challenges they've faced, Kelley explained why Delta has chosen to celebrate this homecoming. "If we think about the mental health of our employees, and where we are in this isolation and loneliness factor, we're trying to head that off and build back to this community... It's like bringing your family together again."

How should HR leaders approach sharing their return-to-office guidelines with their leadership teams?

"The most important thing to start with," Kelley explained, "is to understand what sort of outcome aligns to your business strategy." Be sure to draw a clear connection between the return-to-work plan and your company goals to explain your logic.

But if you really want to get buy-in across the board, then collaboration is key.

"When you introduced me, you said I was leading all these efforts for Delta," Kelley said, "And I don't want to take credit for that... It's been a cross-divisional effort from the top of the house — HR, operations, supply chain, legal — it's not an HR-only thing. This is about building a really, really powerful and collaborative team to make this happen."

Watch the full video:

Have a return-to-work question that Kelley didn't answer? Our team can help.

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