With Martin G. Moore

Episode #154

Return to Work Rules: Are vaccination mandates good?

As we start to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, and governments around the world loosen restrictions, business leaders are faced with the incredibly difficult task of working out how to get their businesses back to a relatively functional state.

The imposition of vaccination mandates has been big news in the US in the last few weeks, and major corporations are taking a variety of positions on this complex issue.

What are the right risk settings? What rules should be put in place for employees returning to work? And how should leaders strike a balance between their people’s individual freedoms and the collective good of customers, suppliers, and the business itself?

In this episode, I provide a 5-step decision making framework to help you work through the issues for your own unique circumstances.


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Episode #154 Return to Work Rules: Are vaccination mandates good?

As we start to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and governments around the world loosen restrictions, business leaders are faced with the incredibly difficult task of working out how to get their businesses back to a relatively functional state.

What are the right risk settings? What rules should be put in place for employees returning to work? And how should leaders strike a balance between their people’s individual freedoms and the collective good of customers, suppliers, and the business itself?

Some companies are blazing the trail, and we can learn a lot from seeing how they address issues like working from home. There’s also been a lot of attention in the last week or so in the US about the large corporations that are applying mandatory rules for employees regarding COVID vaccinations.

Several major companies have said that their people can’t come into the office unless they’ve been vaccinated. This creates a dilemma for leaders and employees alike.

I want to pick this apart a little to look at the factors you may wish to consider when leading through these difficult situations.

  • I’ll start with an overview of what’s been going on in different countries around the world as we begin to emerge from COVID restrictions

  • Then I’ll explore two key return to work issues, remote working and vaccination mandates

  • I’ll finish with a few tips for how to think through these very tricky issues in your own organisation


What’s been going on around the world? Well in Episode 93, which was well over a year ago, I did an episode called the COVID-19 Leadership Scorecard.

In that episode, I had a good look at what was going on at the time and how leaders were being assessed for their response to the virus. Now more than 12 months on, let’s see where we are.


Freedom day in Great Britain was the 19th of July, and it was widely predicted to be a cataclysmic failure. All restrictions were lifted on that day so that they could return to life that was something like normal for the Brits.

Since then, to everyone’s surprise, things are actually going pretty well. Cases have dropped by 40%, hospitalizations and deaths have remained low, and there are many theories as to why.

But how has the UK positioned as it emerges now from all of the COVID-19 palaver? I’m going to be taking some statistics from a site called Worldometer, which since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has been compiling statistics from most countries and states.

Since the start of the pandemic, the rate of infections and death in the UK are, 87,000 cases of infection per million population, which is about 8% and 1,905 deaths per million, which is less than 0.2% of the population.

Now just bear this in mind, right? We’re going to cover a few of these stats for a number of different countries, just to compare how their policies worked out.


Now in the USA every state is different. And it’s useful to see how the radically different policies have affected the actual outcomes.

In Texas for example, there have been no restrictions since the 17th of May. And in fact, a law was passed to make it illegal to require face masks to be worn. Cases are now growing. There were 88,500 cases last week versus 55,000 the week before. And we can expect fluctuations for a range of reasons, but that’s a significant gap.

In California, some restrictions are still in place. There’s mask wearing, social distancing, capacity limits, but no lockdowns anymore. Cases, are still growing at a similar rate to Texas, 73,000 last week versus 51,000 the week before.

And in New York, most restrictions have been lifted on the basis of 70% of the population being vaccinated with at least one shot. Mask wearing and social distancing are optional now, but the cases are still growing, 20,000 last week versus 13,000 the week before. The common theme is that there’s an uptick in infections as restrictions are eased, no matter what.

Now let’s have a look at the outcomes for these three states. California and Texas had radically different policies all the way through the COVID-19 pandemic.

In California, the total number of cases is 101,000 per million population and the number of deaths, 1,639 per million population.

In Texas, they’ve had 110,000 cases per million with 1,853 deaths per million. So Texas is basically 10% higher than California, but even though that’s material, it’s not outrageous, and I would have expected a much bigger gap, given the chalk and cheese differences in their actual policies.

Let’s have a look at New York. 114,000 cases per million, which is fairly consistent with the others, but deaths at 2,791 deaths per million. Now that’s a much higher figure. New York got hit really, really hard, really early because they were such a hub and had so much transition in a high density population coming through quickly.


Sweden’s caseload, 108,000 per million, which is around the same as New York and Texas. But the deaths much lower, 1,438 per million. Now what’s really interesting about this is that Sweden said, “Let ‘er rip.”

Right from the get-go no restrictions, no lockdowns, just our citizens are smart enough to work it out and they let it go. It’s interesting to see how similar these outcomes can be with such radically different policies.


Let’s have a quick fly across to France. As of 25th of July, 62% of all adults had been fully vaccinated. And COVID vaccines are mandatory for health workers. But also people need to demonstrate via their official health passes that they’ve been vaccinated or tested negative for the infection in order to gain access to restaurants, movie theatres, trains, and tourist venues. So France has very much taken the approach no jab, no play.

There were some pretty significant protests in France when this first came out but overall, the French president, Emmanuel Macron’s popularity rate soared.

France, their stats, cases, 95,000 per million and deaths 1,713 per million, similar to both California and Texas. Now, I don’t know if you’re seeing a pattern yet, but I’m struggling to see a massive impact from mandated government restrictions on long-term health outcomes.


Alright, let’s have a look at something close to my heart, Australia. In terms of COVID infections, Australia has hit the ball absolutely out of the park, only 1400 infection cases per million and 36 deaths per million population.

But in terms of preparedness to exit the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia is in a world of pain.

At the outset of the pandemic the politicians realised how popular it was to pursue an elimination strategy. Zero cases became the only acceptable outcome. And with borders that are so easy to manage, this appeared possible and worked for quite a while.

Then of course, the media piled on. The daily media scorecard focused on COVID statistics above everything else. So restrictions were put in place frequently. The minute a positive COVID case was detected, most state Premiers would close the state borders and lock down the city, or sometimes the whole state. If a few cases were detected in one state, many other states will close their borders to that state, and this made life extraordinarily unpredictable.

As I’m recording this episode, 16 million people, which is about two thirds of the population of Australia, are in strict lockdowns. Hard border closures prevent people from traveling between states, and for some in the state of Victoria, they’ve spent well over six months in hard lockdown since the pandemic began.

This has certainly had the desired effect on the health outcomes, but the social and economic devastation that this has wrought is yet to be fully understood.

Because the decision-making model has been completely one dimensional, no factors other than COVID infections have been considered. We know there’s been an increase in mental health issues. There’s unrecoverable loss of educational opportunities for children at critical development stages. And deaths from other causes, for example due to people forgoing cancer screenings and regular doctor visits, are on the rise.

The economic impact? Well, we don’t even know, we’re yet to receive the bill. That’s going to go to a future generation.

But let’s face it, in the world of risk management, you can reduce a risk to zero, as long as you’re willing to throw enough money at the problem. It’s not smart, but it’s an option. We could reduce road deaths by spending a gazillion dollars on road and traffic system upgrades, but the cost to do so is prohibitive. So we accept that there’ll be a certain number of road deaths each year.

One of our anti-lockdown politicians wrote an op-ed piece the other day, where he looked at the findings from a couple of recent modelling studies, and extrapolated that every death saved in Australia, due to the current lockdowns, was actually costing the economy $330 million per person. So in Australia, there’s still a long way to go to get to the basic acceptance that like any other disease, at some point, there will be some casualties.

Now with politicians being in the unenviable position of making decisions with no real data or precedent, they will naturally do what’s popular. So with a little more experience and a lot more data to rely upon 18 months down the track, what are the drivers of these outcomes?

Well, apart from countries like Australia and New Zealand that have taken a draconian approach to virus elimination, to vastly different approaches we’ve seen from other countries and states, don’t seem to have driven vastly different outcomes.

What does drive the health outcomes? Is it population density? Is it average population age? Is it traffic through airports and borders? Major hubs like New York and London suffered early, compared to say Australia and New Zealand just for this reason. Is it behavioral drivers like propensity of people to socialize in large groups or having large family units living in the same house? Will a stronger future predictor be the level of protection through antibodies in vaccination?

remote working and vaccination mandates

That was fun and interesting to have a look across the world, but let’s get down to the leadership business. There are two key issues facing businesses at the moment as vaccination rates increase and people start returning to offices and work sites.The first, is the work from home issue. The second and more interesting issue, is vaccination mandates.


Let’s start with working from home. I’m going to go on a limb here and try to characterise how the work from home experiment is going. Let’s look from the employee’s perspective and this could mean middle managers and more senior employees as well.

People love it for the most part. There are no commute times and there’s flexibility in all sorts of ways. From when to walk the dog, to what you wear from the waist down. Zoom, yeah sure, it’s a pain in the ass, but we live with it.

We’ve learned that many jobs can be done from anywhere. It feels like there’s more balance because there’s more contact with family members.

But for people living alone, on the downside, it can be really tough, as the social interactions that we all crave, are more limited.

Let’s look from the CEO or company perspective. For me, there’s no doubt that productivity is lower. This is even despite the hours saved from the getting to work and back process. There are some credible studies emerging now, so we should watch this space pretty keenly. But there are other things that are also lost.

  • Communication across organisational silos is more difficult

  • When evaluating outcomes, understanding not just the what, but how results are achieved, is much trickier when you don’t have the same amount of informal communication and access to the people you lead

  • Identifying and nurturing talent is much more difficult to do from a distance

  • Building the right culture is much harder, and this is the source from which high performance originates

Leading and working remotely also pushes us into a much more transactional space. So we’re unlikely to see the real impacts of this for some time. We’ve been in survival mode, dealing with extreme uncertainty, and this will have to plateau out for a while before we truly understand the implications.

This is just a few headline points in a very complex area that’s bound to be situationally dependent. So what should you be thinking about as a leader, if you’re trying to decide what to do going forward? More on this shortly.


There’s a pressing issue of vaccinations, which I think is even trickier. A Wall Street Journal article last week reported that several major companies, such as Walmart, Microsoft, United Airlines and Tyson Foods, have mandated that certain workers must be vaccinated before they return to work. Others, like manufacturing giants GE, Caterpillar, and the big three car manufacturers aren’t mandating vaccines for their people.

Now, in Tyson’s case, it’s a blanket requirement for all employees. The CEO of Tyson said that he used the encouragement method for months, but less than half the employees took them up on the offer to be vaccinated. They decided to move towards a stricter mandate.

So here we are with a serious leadership dilemma. People have an individual right to choose whether or not they get vaccinated, and I genuinely believe in everyone having the right to make that choice.

However, like all choices in society that affect others, the choice shouldn’t necessarily be free from consequences. If I choose to drive a car after drinking 9 pints of beer, and I crash into someone else, that choice has consequences. And rightly so. I’m making a personal decision that puts other people at risk.

So remember France? The French government is basically saying, make your choice and live with that choice. You don’t have to get vaccinated, but if you choose not to, the consequences are that you’ll face certain restrictions in order to keep everyone else safe. The ban from restaurants and bars would certainly be enough to push me to the nearest vaccination clinic in a heartbeat.


As you start making decisions about how these issues are going to be handled, what considerations should you assess, and what’s a sensible frame for decision-making? Let’s walk through a process that you can apply.

At the outset, it’s important to understand that this is ultimately about your assessment and understanding of risk. Apart from the government mandates, which are largely outside of your control, which we call the cold hard facts, your assessment of risk and reward is critical. When dealing with such a hot button issue for people, you’re absolutely going to have to face risks either way.

If you have a vaccine mandate, you risk losing people. If you don’t, there’s an elevated health risk for everyone else in the workplace.

So let’s start number one, legislative compliance. The lowest level bar is at the same time one of the most important to ensure that you clear.

Is it legal to do what you’d like to do? For example, in the United States, the equal opportunity commission says that it is legal to mandate vaccinations. However, it’s not exactly that black and white.

The FDA still hasn’t given unconditional approval for any of the major vaccines. They’re only approved for emergency use. Should this factor into your decision-making? I suspect there’s still a ways to go on this one.

Number two, think about your values and the values of your organisation. Are you an organisation that caters to every individual’s needs and desires, or are you one that expects a certain standard of behaviour and performance as the ticket to play?

If it’s the latter, you may wish to demand more stringent compliance, but bear in mind that this door swings both ways. If the vaccine availability is either not accessible for your employees, or they have to bear the cost of vaccine personally, that might affect how you look at the problem in your particular country or company.

Number three is the duty of care to your people. You have an overarching responsibility to ensure that your people are safe when they come to work. For example, we have rules for alcohol and drug use in many industries. Why? To ensure that every individual is kept safe. Demanding that people are vaccinated is an extension of your duty of care as a leader and an organisation.

Fourth, let’s look at operational requirements. What do you need from your people to optimize the running of the business? If the business is 30% more efficient to have people back in the office, then you want them in the office to the greatest extent possible.

There are likely to be some trade-offs, as work from home will play a part to at least some degree. But as a leader, your first responsibility is to the organisation, then the team, then the individual. And your assessment of what’s best for the organisation, isn’t necessarily just profitability. It might rely upon retaining key people, or it might be a duty of care to the customers you serve.

Now beyond this, number five, it’s all about risk. Most companies want people back in their work locations, at least to some degree. So work out what the right mix is to give your people some desired flexibility without sacrificing company performance. When you work out what rules you’d ideally like to put in place, take a moment to think about the risks that this poses. Will I still be able to attract and retain the talent I want? If I make concessions, how can I ensure any operational impacts are minimised?

How do I improve the leadership capability below me, to ensure that people are still delivering the essential value for the business? And what new skills do I need to mitigate this particular risk? When it comes to mandatory vaccinations, it’s really the same question. What do I think is the right risk setting for my business, customers, and the majority of my people?

Mandating COVID vaccinations is likely to push some people to seek employment elsewhere, which is a risk. Without some level of protection though, you risk operational disruption and an increased likelihood of harm to other employees.

Now here’s one really creative suggestion from the Wall Street Journal article. Steelmaker, Cleveland Cliffs, has put in place a workforce target rather than an individual mandate and they’ve attached incentives to it.

So for every person in a work group that reaches 75% vaccination rate, they get $1,500 bonus. For each person in a work group that reaches 85% vaccination rate, they get a $3,000 bonus. And this appears to be working. It’s driving the behavior the right way. What it’s done, is allow people to have some freedom of individual choice while not risking operational meltdowns. Now these decisions aren’t as easy as they might appear. So make sure you think carefully about all the repercussions before you move decisively towards your preferred position.


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