Is mandating proof of vaccination or a negative test the right approach to returning to the office?

The great return to the office will raise questions over personal choice and safety where Covid is concerned.

Clockwise from top left: Mackay-Sinclair, Sloan, Jordan Bambach, Palmer, Smith, O'Loughlin, Hassett, Al‑Zaidy,
Clockwise from top left: Mackay-Sinclair, Sloan, Jordan Bambach, Palmer, Smith, O'Loughlin, Hassett, Al‑Zaidy,

Returning to regularly working in a physical office is regarded as one of the last steps towards normality for many in the UK. 

Last week it was revealed that, in markets where vaccines and testing are readily available, Interpublic Group (IPG) will be implementing strict safety protocols upon staff returning to their offices in September. Employees will be required to provide proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test within the past 72 hours.

Safety is at the forefront of most people’s minds, and given that there have been three national lockdowns since March 2020, it is no surprise.

The precautions are meant to ensure “collective good health and peace of mind”, said IPG chief executive Philippe Krakowsky, but despite this, the decision raises difficult questions about personal choices, freedom, and workplace dynamics. 

Questions such as “How comfortable is the workforce with unvaccinated people in the office?” will undoubtedly arise, creating awkward working relationships between colleagues.

Not only that, will unvaccinated members of staff be required to inform their fellow colleagues, and not just management?

These questions, which will only increase in urgency as September approaches. So what's adland's view on this thorny issue?

Katie Mackay-Sinclair

Partner, Mother

Like so many things related to coronavirus, of course this one isn’t a definitive yes or no. The intent, I’m sure, is right: IPG wants to keep its people safe in the office. Testing is a sensible precaution for all, but it feels poorly judged to all-out mandate vaccinations.

It could alienate those unable to have them (for 100% legitimate reasons) – left with a choice of either not being at work or forced to disclose potentially sensitive medical history to their employer. This global diktat goes against behaviour-shifting communications best practice; wielding a big stick instead of offering a series of carrots. I feel for the UK IPG team who are no doubt dealing with the fallout.

Rory Sloan

Operations director, Avantgarde

At Avantgarde, although we are offering flexible working solution for our teams, we believe as a creative agency it is of utmost importance to continue to offer an inspiring coworking environment that people feel safe to come and work in. We have put in place the measures that we feel offer a sensible level of protection to everyone without being overly restrictive or require the team to reveal personal information. Where it will become more challenging is as we start to resume international travel for our clients. Depending on the entry requirements for different countries or a particular event, which will continue to change over the coming year or two, employees will either need proof of a Covid-19 vaccination or a negative PCR test.  This is not entirely new as there have always been territories that have required vaccination to go to, yellow fever vaccine is essential for a number of African countries for example. If one of the team was not keen on getting a vaccine to attend a particular territory, we would respect that decision and work with it.

Laura Jordan Bambach

President, Grey London

This subject is definitely a challenging one as it touches people deep in their beliefs and bodies. As a company that cares about our employees’ wellbeing in and outside the office, it is important that we give people a sense of mutual responsibility and educate them on the advantages of being vaccinated. Vaccination and new rules of behaviour when at work should help create a more inclusive and respectful framework to help people want to return back to the office.

Ed Palmer

Managing director, St Luke's

As employers, we have responsibility for the health and wellbeing of all our people. That means taking all possible precautions we can to make the workplace safe. So it’s not unreasonable to take steps to ensure people coming in are either vaccinated or tested. Of course, there may be cases where people are not vaccinated for good reasons; but for those people we’ll always make provisions to participate fully remotely. That’s why for example, we’re doing everything we can to make the blended meeting a satisfying and democratic experience for everyone involved.

Zaid Al‑Zaidy

Chief executive, The Beyond Collective

Much controversy surrounds the ethics of insisting on a "vaccine passport" for travel or for work, which is why holding companies have been reluctant to make a similar move. IPG is the exception and their plan for "collective good health and peace of mind" is being executed top-down – as if it were a mini-empire made from an archipelago of office-nations – all bowing down to a central government mandate. 

In defence of IPG’s uncomfortable universal decree, global economies fare better when there is cross-border consistency, versus having to deal here with a multitude of local government Covid policies, often incoherent and subject to constant change. Also, with anti-silo, cross-agency, inter-group efforts on the rise, one rule for all is clear, simple and good for collaboration. However, the ethical question remains another issue altogether, and must not be dodged.

Tim Hassett

Chief executive, Unlimited

We have come to learn there is no perfect solution, but it's vital to have many protocols in place that strike the right balance between respecting individual choices and, at the same time, protecting the collective. We have required testing twice per week since we reopened our office and everyone has been fully supportive, giving peace of mind to many. We do not/will not require proof of vaccination – we believe that is a very personal choice.

Keith O'Loughlin

Chief executive, Smyle

I think it is sensible to mandate vaccines unless there is a medical reason that a person cannot get the jab. Our biosecurity regime remains under periodic review – at present, those using the office are required to provide regular self-declaration of a negative lateral flow test, in addition to which we comply with both client and venue obligations, some of which include proof of vaccination. In my view, private business needs to do its part along with the government – all hands on deck to get past this pandemic.

James Smith

UK managing director, The Kite Factory

One of the most important things we have learnt as a business over the past 18 months is that we can trust our staff. As we went into lockdown there were concerns that it would result in lower productivity levels but we saw quite the opposite.

For the same reason, as we’ve opened the office, we haven’t felt the need to mandate any requirements – we treat our staff like adults and our culture is to look out for one another. We trust our employees to make their own decisions and do what they think best, and we’re pleased to report that since we’ve had circa 30% of the agency back in the office we haven’t seen any reason to change our mind.