Remember all that optimism at the start of our Hot Vax Summer? That was back when vaccinations were on the rise, masks were coming off and getting back to normal seemed possible? Businesses began planning for a return to the office though some were holding off until September to give employees flexibility and time to adjust.

But now the delta variant is running rampant, there’s a slowdown in vaccinations and cases of COVID are spiking. And even employees who wanted to return are saying they’d like to hold off, or wait, or perhaps work someplace else.

U.S. workers quitting their jobs hit a high of 2.5 percent in May. Combine that with a Robert Half survey that found seven in 10 managers report increased staff turnover since the start of 2021. With New Hampshire’s unemployment rate back at pre-pandemic lows, the competition for talent has heated up, and employees have plenty of options to jump ship. So companies are increasing salaries, offering signing bonuses and offering more flexibility to win over and retain top talent.

But it will take more than money to attract and retain employees. With employees at different levels of comfort over returning to the workplace, employers are faced with fraught decisions that inevitably mean losing some of their workforce.

In a survey of professionals who are still working remotely, Robert Half found 53 percent prefer colleagues wear masks if they must return to the office, and 52 percent think employers should require staff to be vaccinated. Almost half — 49 percent — want a hybrid work model that allows them to divide time between home and office. And, more than half — 53 percent — don’t want to share workstations. Despite all the coverage in the media, 26 percent say they are in the dark about their own company’s return-to-office plans.

Many workers have spent the pandemic re-evaluating their lives, careers and what they really want, says Barry Roy, regional president for Robert Half in Northern New England. In fact, another Robert Half survey found 31 percent of workers had a shift in feelings about their career due to the pandemic. Robert Half also found 38 percent of workers feel their career has stalled in the past year, and they are not wrong. Fully 59 percent of managers said they put off promoting top performers due to COVID-19.

It’s a perfect storm for employees to look elsewhere for higher pay, more flexibility and greater advancement opportunities.

“People are leaving companies faster than they have in 20 years,” says Mary Leddy, COO of Work Opportunities Unlimited in Dover.

Amy Cann, managing partner of HR ROI Consulting in Portsmouth, says the “great resignation” movement is real, and workers are inundated with social media messages from influencers to recruiters that, if they are unhappy, they should look for another job. “Younger generations have less of a link to loyalty,” Cann says.

“COVID, in so many ways, has been a reset for our society. It’s made people re-evaluate what they value,” says James T. McKim Jr., managing partner of Organizational Igniter in Goffstown. “More businesses understand work can be done remotely and are not afraid of it, and that has been good for work-life balance. It put some more power into the hands of the employees.”

Going hybrid

While those businesses that can have a remote workforce are starting to bring employees back, the question is whether to offer a hybrid model that allows them to work part time from home. “[Many] companies will offer a three-pronged approach by continuing to let some people work remotely, some will come back full time and some will work a hybrid model,” says Leddy, as many employees are demanding more control and flexibility in their schedule.

There are plenty of employees who want to see and collaborate with co-workers in person but don’t want to give up the flexibility of remote work, Cann says.

McKim says employers need to consider the importance of in-person collaboration and the sparks of creativity that come with people feeding off one another’s energy and ideas. The big question employers need to ask is whether productivity is better in person or remotely, he says.

There are also logistical questions, including whether employees will have assigned or shared offices, and how much space is needed to still socially distance, McKim and Leddy say.

COVID safety remains a concern as not everyone is vaccinated, and concerns regarding breakthrough cases remain. Some employers who have mandated vaccinations have faced backlash and seen employees quit as a result, says Alison Milioto, owner and partner at BlueLion, an HR firm in Manchester. She recommends strongly encouraging and incentivizing vaccinations with such things as cash bonuses, gift cards or raffles for iPads.

Companies should also maintain heightened cleaning protocols, Cann says, and enforce sick leave. “If you are sick, do not come to work,” Leddy says.

HR experts say the most important thing companies can do now is to be open and honest. Admit that leadership does not know everything and that plans are fluid. “We’ve been telling clients from day one to over-communicate the uncertainty,” Milioto says.

Talk to employees and send out surveys to get the pulse of workers, Milioto says. “When you assume how staff feel, you get into prickly situations.”

Be clear that just because you are asking about preferences, there is no promise to implement, Cann says. Explain how the company’s needs must be considered. However, Cann says by including employees in the decision-making process, employers will garner more buy-in.

This article is being shared by a partner in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.