Five factors govern how organizations in various countries should relax pandemic-control measures on the assumption that vaccine passports are infallible.

As COVID-19 vaccine deployment and mass vaccination programs get underway, organizational leaders will have a new decision point to ponder: how to accelerate the return of operations to near-new ‘normal’ without overstepping their bounds.

What are these bounds? From doubts about vaccines’ effectiveness, to significant country-by-country variations in administration priorities, to various concerns linked to privacy, ethics, legal and compliance. As vaccination programs get completed and pandemic control rules modified in tune with the efficacy levels, organizations will need to be cautious as they define their own pandemic management procedures.

According to Forrester, 40% of European and 30% of US employees are ready to return to the office setting to the extent that vaccine and ‘immunization passports’—digital documents that provide evidence of an individual’s immunization status (and by association, the COVID-19 transmission risk)— will allow.

In its new report on the unknowns and risks of using vaccine passports to reopen workplaces, the research firm has identified several risks that employers must address if deploying vaccine passports to inform their return-to-work strategies. Risk exposure includes sensitive data mishandling, discrimination, labor union mobilization, diminished cybersecurity, and negative impact on the customer experience.

Five factors that will matter

Notwithstanding disparate vaccine-linked and policy-linked factors that vary from country to country, the following points in the research aim to remind organizational leaders of the sharp points of reality:

  1. Vaccines are not a silver bullet
    Factors ranging from global vaccine strategies to early-stage understanding of the virus, its variants, and efficacy of the vaccines deployed mean employers must plan to continue anywhere-work policies and hybrid experiences to balance convenience with well-being.
  2. Avoid the privacy and ethical pitfalls of a “no jab, no job” policy
    Some 40% of European and 30% of US employees are ready to return to the office, but asking them to carry proof of inoculation with them to be allowed to enter the workplace introduces privacy and ethics risks.
  3. Follow principles of proportionality, fairness, and transparency
    Employers should collect only the minimum amount of data needed to trigger specific policies. They should encrypt medical data and enforce strict access, sharing, and deletion policies to ensure fairness and protection. (This is on top of existing national data privacy and protection laws.)
  4. Employers must navigate compliance and legal risks
    In the US, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) did agree that employers can make the vaccine mandatory for employees, but several state legislatures have challenged the legality of such a requirement. In the EU and UK, each country has its own approach.  
  5. Be mindful of customer experience and perceptions issues
    Relaxing protocols for safe distancing, sanitization and mask wearing in customer-facing interactions risks a negative impact on how customers (with a wide range of personal beliefs and safety expectations) perceive a brand and their willingness to do business with the organization. (Would it be better to err on the side of caution, transparency and facilitating customer choice?)

Organizations will also need to be circumspect over the emergent or raging issues of vaccine diplomacy, vaccine vigilantism, discriminatory vaccination policies and vaccine nationalism when setting and enforcing policy. Satisfactory solutions or compromises may or may not be reached worldwide, but organizations need to keep track of the trends and facilitate choice to avoid being trapped in debilitating worker disputes and incidents.

One senior analyst at the research firm, Enza Iannopollo, encapsulated the findings’ essence: “While (the pandemic) is loosening its grip, it’s not going away. Vaccine passports don’t offer the silver-bullet solution that many might hope for easing pandemic protocols and restrictions, and businesses should be planning for life with COVID in the medium to long term. Our overarching message to organizations everywhere is one of caution. With the right planning and consideration, the return to work will be smoother and more successful for all involved.”