Quality Professionals Need to Address the Serious Threat of the Delta Surge for the Normal Office Return

The biggest threat in underestimating the Delta surge comes from the normalcy bias. This dangerous judgment error leads us to underestimate the likelihood and impact of disruptive events.

With the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus surging and vaccine effectiveness against it dropping to 39% after 6 months, quality professionals need to help their organizations recognize that we are not yet ready for a safe return to the office. Make no mistake about the danger: the Delta surge is forecast to grow much worse in the next few months. Indeed, the CDC is asking vaccinated people to wear masks and moving toward recommending booster shots. 

Yet many large companies and mid-size firms, along with the federal government, are still planning to bring employees back to the office, despite the fact that those employees successfully worked from home during the height of the pandemic by using cloud-based technology that facilitates remote work. Over a third have already returned, and most of the rest are slated to return by the end of summer or early-mid autumn, when the schools will reopen and Delta cases will soar. 

Why are the federal government and leading companies putting the health and safety of their employees at serious risk? And why are they practically guaranteeing mass employee flight as part of the Great Resignation prompted by pressure to return to the office?  

After all, in-depth surveys of employee preferences on returning to the office—even before the Delta surge—showed that about half were willing to quit if not given their preferred work arrangements. The surveys revealed a quarter to a third of employees wanted full-time remote work, while over half wanted a hybrid schedule of a day or two in the office. Many employees have already quit due to employer plans to bring them back to the office. Fears over the Delta surge will undoubtedly prompt even more to quit rather than risk their health due to a resurgence of the virus. 

Cognitve Biases Lead to Judgement Errors

The reason that so many large employers fail to listen to the concerns of employees, whether about their work preferences or their health, stems from the wishful thinking of dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. These mental blind spots lead to poor strategic and financial decision making when evaluating options. They cause leaders to go with their gut and follow their personal preferences instead of relying on best practices. Quality professionals need to inform their organizations about these cognitive biases to help them make better decisions on the office return. 

The biggest threat in underestimating the Delta surge comes from the normalcy bias. This dangerous judgment error leads us to underestimate the likelihood and impact of disruptive events. Consider that we already had clear evidence of US Covid cases caused by Delta beginning to surge in early June. We also had clear evidence already in May of a Delta-caused explosion of cases in countries with higher rates of vaccination than in the US, such as the UK and Israel.  

Big employers pride themselves on making data-driven decisions. However, the current data suggests that a surge of Delta-driven COVID-19 cases is inevitable. Insisting that employees return to the office while ignoring data that points to keeping them at home as the best option does not represent rational, data-driven decision making. 

Another major mental blind spot at play, the planning fallacy, causes leaders to make overly optimistic plans and refuse to change them despite new evidence showing they they’re wrong. After all, changing your plans implies that you got them wrong in the first place. Many leaders frequently refuse to admit they are mistaken or acknowledge the need to change their plans. By contrast, other leaders show the courage of changing their minds when new evidence shows a need to pivot. 

Band-Aids Are Not Enough

Fortunately, a small number of organizations are analyzing the data and revising their plans. Yet many of these revisions are band-aids rather than true pivots. Some companies, for instance, are delaying the return to the office from September to October. Yet this one-month delay is likely inadequate.  

Large employers bringing employees back to the office need to face the reality that vaccine immunity wanes in a few months. At the same time, new variants are emerging, some of which seem even more dangerous than Delta, such as Delta Plus. This variant is just like Delta, except it contains a mutation that appears to enable the variant to more effectively infect our lung cells and be less vulnerable to vaccines. So Delta Plus is even worse than Delta, and may become widespread as the next major variant (it’s already in the US and at least 11 other countries). 

Delta is a short-term issue with a long-term tail of multiple similar scenarios. Not facing this obvious and unpleasant reality stems from a cognitive bias scholars call the ostrich effect, after the mythical notion that ostriches bury their heads in the sand when facing danger. Research suggests that denying negative reality is a top cause of CEOs getting fired, cited by 23 percent of members of Boards of Directors that terminated their CEOs. 

Overcoming normalcy bias, planning fallacy and the ostrich effect in the return to the office requires quality professionals advocating for research-based best practices. That means a mainly hybrid model of a day or two in the office for most employees, who should be able to move easily to full-time remote work when needed. A substantial minority of employees should work full-time remotely, if they wish to do so and can demonstrate effectiveness. This best-practice setup maximizes the benefits of in-office collaboration for those employees who benefit from it most, while retaining top talent that would leave if not permitted full-time remote work. It also creates company culture, systems and processes that facilitate full-time remote work when needed for all employees. 

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