Businesses Rethink Plans to Return to the Office Amid Omicron Cases
By ANNE D’INNOCENZIO
NEW YORK (AP) – Businesses of all sizes are rethinking their plans to send workers back to the office as the new omicron variant adds another layer of uncertainty.
Alphabet’s Google and the nation’s second-largest automaker Ford Motor Co. are among those once again delaying plans to return to the office, while other companies whose employees have already returned consider adding additional precautions like requiring masks. Officials in the UK, Denmark, Norway and Sweden have also in recent days asked people to work from home if they can over concerns about the variant.
Meta, formerly known as Facebook, and ride-sharing company Lyft separately announced Tuesday that they are letting workers delay their return when offices fully reopen early next year. Meta still plans to open its headquarters in late January, but will allow workers to delay their return until June. Lyft says it won’t require workers to return to its offices for the entire next year, although they will fully reopen as planned in February.
Janelle Gale, vice president of human resources at Meta, said the latest ruling recognizes that “some are not quite ready to come back.”
These measures are the latest indication of how difficult it is for companies to establish firm plans for the mandatory return of their employees, as concerns about a spike in new cases or new variations continue to shift deadlines. This fall, the Delta variant prompted many large companies to postpone a mandatory return until early next year.
âA year and a half ago we thought it would be for a very short time,â said Jeff Levin-Scherz, population health manager at Willis Towers Watson, a global consulting firm. “But the pandemic has given us many curves, and employers must continue to be nimble.”
The company’s survey of 543 employers with 5.2 million workers showed that on average 34% of employees able to work remotely remain remote, but that would drop to 27% by the first quarter of 2022. However, the investigation was conducted before the news of omicron surfaced.
Delayed plans are another blow to already struggling restaurants, bars, dry cleaners and other businesses that rely on office workers as customers. Particularly affected are the inner-city or downtown neighborhoods of cities like New York City, dominated by office buildings that remain largely empty.
The delays come even as U.S. health officials say early indications suggest omicron may be less dangerous than delta, which continues to fuel hospitalizations.
Lawrence Gostin, a public health expert at Georgetown University, doesn’t think there’s enough scientific information about omicron to justify companies delaying plans to return to the office.
âThere will be a constant stream of new variants as well as increases and decreases in cases,â Gostin said. “We should not disrupt normal business activity with every possible outbreak.”
He noted that layered protection like masks, vaccinations and ventilation are very effective in preventing the spread of the virus in a workplace.
Yet the flow of new variations is having a psychological impact on business owners.
“Omicron made me realize that professional life will never go back to what it was before COVID,” said Gisela Girard, president of advertising agency Creative Civilization, whose 12 employees have been working remotely since March 2020. “It made me realize how important working from home is to the safety of employees, their families and our customers as well.”
This summer, Girard’s company was targeting a mandatory hybrid work plan to start in the fall, but delta pushed those plans back to early next year. Now, omicron is having her reconsider not only those plans, but whether the employees should come back at all. She renewed the office lease last year, but said she was redesigning the physical office space.
For companies that have already brought workers back to the office, it’s more difficult to pull out and allow them to be remote again. Still, some are considering new security measures.
Kent Swig, president of Swig Equities LLC, a private Manhattan real estate investment and development firm, said his 65 employees returned to the office in fall 2020 on a hybrid basis and spent five days a week in the office. in May after all were vaccinated.
However, Swig says he is now monitoring the new variant closely and will consider making masks mandatory and even requiring COVID-19 testing several times a week if the threat increases. He said he would change course and start hybrid or remote work if the situation worsened.
âMy first and foremost job is to protect all of my staff,â Swig said. “I will err on the side of caution.”
Levin-Scherz noted that many employers have set multiple return-to-work dates over the past year and are looking at this point to resolve more uncertainties before setting new dates.
Target CEO Brian Cornell recently told The Associated Press he was “avoiding putting dates on the calendar” for a mandatory return to his Minneapolis headquarters. Target began gradually opening up collaboration zones and workspaces in the fall for employees who wanted the ability to work on-site.
âWe’re going to learn along the way and make sure we’re taking the right action for our team,â said Cornell.
Lyft said the decision to let workers choose to work remotely for the whole of 2022 was not tied exclusively to omicron, but said the new variants are a contributing factor to the uncertainty.
âOur team members told us they value continued flexibility in determining where they work and would have extra time to plan,â said Ashley Adams, spokesperson for Lyft.
Meanwhile, Google is indefinitely delaying the mandatory return to its offices. A spokesperson for the company said in an email that the update was in line with its earlier predictions that a return would not begin until January 10 and would depend on local conditions. The company said it has safely opened more than 90% of its offices in the United States and nearly 40% of American workers have entered the office in recent weeks.
Ford said Monday it would delay hybrid work projects at its Dearborn, Mich., Headquarters until March and planned to launch a pilot phase for some employees in February. He previously said he would not launch the hybrid working model until January.
Ford said the hybrid work model affects about 18,000 employees in North America. Hourly manufacturing employees returned to work in May 2020.
Follow Anne D’Innocenzio: http://twitter.com/ADInnocenzio