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Covid-19 vaccine passports: a workforce planning issue in waiting?

Steve Treagust, Vice President of Industries Programme Management at global enterprise software provider IFS, discusses the opportunities and challenges HR departments will face with the rise of digital Covid-19 vaccination records.

5th Feb 2021
Editor HRZone
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Covid-19 Coronavirus Vaccine vials in a row macro close up
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The Covid-19 vaccination roll out continues apace in the UK, with an estimated 9 million people in the UK having received the jab at the time of writing. As we move into the next phases of implementation, employers may request electronic proof of an employee’s Covid-19 vaccination. With many sites only offering a paper vaccination record, however, this could cause problems for many.

One key benefit of a digitised record is the ability to integrate and communicate with other systems. From a business perspective, existing workforce management systems can be modified to recognise these new records.

Software provider IFS notes that the integration of digital vaccination records with existing HR and workforce management technologies will be key to reopening the economy, but this does come with a significant administrative burden. Here, the company’s vice president of industries programme management, Steve Treagust, offers us an insight into the issues that could crop up.

When are we likely to see digital immunity passports up and running, and how would these passports work?

Steve: At this stage it’s probably too early to tell, but there are a number of companies actively developing technology in this space. Some of these have received funding from UK government agencies to explore applications related to the Covid-19 pandemic. The purpose of a vaccine passport in this context is that it is there to ensure adequate protections are put in place both for the specific employee concerned, and all employees, customers, and suppliers that the employee may come into contact with.

Typical procedures for administering vaccines see patients issued with a paper card in addition to an update on their medical records, but our current situation clearly requires something more sophisticated. A vaccine passport is essentially just a digital certificate that verifies a person has been inoculated, but it can be used in a number of different ways. One key benefit of a digitised record is the ability to integrate and communicate with other systems. From a business perspective, existing workforce management systems can be modified to recognise these new records, using this data to inform decision-making. For a manufacturing business, for example, vaccine passports could be used to determine who has been vaccinated and therefore can safely return to work on production lines.

Being able to interrogate this vaccination data within the workforce would enable managers to better understand if they can return to ‘normal’ operations in physical workspaces, or if they need to reduce output or adjust shift patterns. The last thing businesses want to do is put their staff at risk, so if they can put in place better processes to ensure a return to productive output without incurring additional risk – and without excessive cost and admin – they will do that.

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Can you provide detail on the potential of organisations integrating these passports into their HR systems to support the return to work process? What kinds of technology will organisations need to have in place?

Steve: Most businesses mid-sized and up will have some kind of workforce management system in place to store employee records and help manage the human resources functions of the organisation. These systems can usually be configured to accept new records in a variety of formats. For vaccine passports, these records are relatively straightforward. The vaccination needs to be recorded (yes/no), dated (no expiries on this one), and any relevant information also noted such as the type of vaccine given (Pfizer or AstraZeneca etc.), where it was administered, and whether one or two doses were provided.

The latter two will be for any future requirements around tracing just in case there are issues with a location, vaccine batch, or vaccination process. This being the case, so long as the two systems are compatible and can communicate with one another, people should be able to log in to this workforce management platform and use the passport to authenticate themselves as being inoculated.

In this regard, vaccine passports should be considered as no different from a systems and processes perspective than any qualification to work safely. HR systems that currently record qualifications and certifications should cope quite easily with this as they are already covering more than the process here requires.

With these systems in place, HR teams can build this step into their return-to-work processes. For example, they might combine checks on whether employees have been vaccinated and whether they can work in a socially-distanced manner (another yes or no checkbox). They could then also couple that with a return-to-work interview, assessing their mental and physical wellbeing, childcare arrangements etc., to determine their ability to return to physical workplaces.

By following these processes, businesses will be able to build up a picture of the workforce they can realistically expect to return to physical workplaces, and how they can operate as efficiently as possible at any given time, enabling leaders to take the appropriate decisions on staffing and operations.

What do you foresee as being the main challenges for HR in managing this process?

Steve: There are a number of challenges that may arise if we are to see a rollout of vaccine passports. The first is that smaller businesses may not have the technology that allows them to connect to and use the data from vaccine passports. By virtue of being smaller, it may be easier to manage workforces in another way, however visualising the information and acting on it in a simple integrated interface may not be possible.

The second key challenge, even for larger enterprises, will be what technology the passports use. There are many different approaches and technologies currently being discussed, and short of a unified national or international effort, it is likely that we will see several different types of passport being used.

In particular those organisations with large workforces that operate internationally will need to build their systems and processes to cope with several different passport types. The processes will need to interpret the data from the passports and translate that into a single format that that organisation will use to inform its actions. This is not as straightforward as it may sound, and depending on how many passport issuers we see, and how varied their technology is, could present some difficulties for businesses.

Interested in this topic? Read Three predictions for HR in 2021: embracing an agile, intelligence-led mission control.

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