Employers of all sizes are rethinking their plans to send workers back to the office as the new Omicron variant adds another layer of uncertainty.
Google and Ford Motor Co. are among those once again delaying their return-to-office plans, while other businesses whose employees have already returned are considering adding extra precautions like requiring masks. Officials in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the U.K. have also asked people in recent days to work from home if they can because of concerns about the variant.
Google is indefinitely delaying the mandatory return to its offices. In an email, a company spokesperson said the update was in line with its earlier guidance that a return would start no sooner than Jan. 10 and depend on local conditions. The company said it safely opened more than 90 per cent of its U.S. offices and nearly 40 per cent of U.S. workers came into the office in recent weeks.
Ford said it will delay plans for hybrid work at its Dearborn, Mich., headquarters until March 2022 and plans to start a pilot phase for select employees in February. It had previously said it wouldn’t start the hybrid work model before January. Ford said the hybrid work model affects approximately 18,000 employees in North America. This spring, Ford told about 30,000 of its employees worldwide who’ve worked from home that they could continue to do so indefinitely, with flexible hours approved by their managers.
Meta Platorms Inc., formerly known as Facebook, and ride-sharing company Lyft Inc. separately announced they’re letting workers delay their return when offices fully reopen early next year. Meta still plans to open its headquarters at the end of January, but will allow workers to delay their return as late as June. Lyft says it won’t require workers to come back to its offices for all of next year, though they will fully reopen as planned in February. Janelle Gale, vice-president of human resources at Meta, says the latest decision recognizes “some aren’t quite ready to come back.”
Lyft says the decision to let workers choose to work remotely for all of 2022 wasn’t tied exclusively to Omicron, but says new variants are a factor contributing to uncertainty. “We’ve heard from our team members that they value continued flexibility in determining where they work and would benefit from additional time to plan,” says Ashley Adams, a Lyft spokesperson.
The moves are the latest indication of how difficult it is for companies to set firm plans for their employees’ mandatory return as worries about a spike in new cases or new variants keep shifting deadlines. This fall, the Delta variant spurred many big companies to postpone a mandatory return to early next year. In September, Microsoft Corp. pushed back its return-to-office date in the U.S. indefinitely amid rising uncertainty due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“A year and a half ago, we thought this would be for a very short time,” says Jeff Levin-Scherz, population health leader at Willis Towers Watson, a global advisory firm. “But the pandemic has thrown us many curves and employers need to continue to be nimble.”
The firm’s survey of 543 U.S.-based employers with 5.2 million workers showed, on average, 34 per cent of remote-capable employees remain remote, but that will decline to 27 per cent by the first quarter of 2022. However, the survey was conducted before news of the Omicron coronavirus variant surfaced.
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 believe there’s enough scientific information on Omicron to warrant companies delaying their return-to-office plans. “There will be a constant stream of new variants as well as surges and waning of cases. We shouldn’t disrupt normal business activity at every possible trigger.”
He also notes layered protection like masks, vaccinations and ventilation are highly effective at preventing virus spread in a workplace.
Still, the stream of new variants is having a psychological impact on business owners. “Omicron has made me realize work life will never return to the way it was pre-COVID,” says Gisela Girard, president of advertising agency Creative Civilization, whose 12 employees have been working remotely since March 2020. “It made me realize how working from home is likely to keep employees, their families and also our clients safe.”
This summer, Girard’s company aimed for a mandatory hybrid work plan to start in the fall, but the Delta variant pushed those plans back to early next year. Now, Omicron has her reconsidering not only those plans but whether employees should return at all. She renewed the office lease last year, but says she’s rethinking the physical office space.
For companies that have already brought workers back to the office, it’s harder to retreat and allow them to be remote again. Still, some are considering new safety measures. Kent Swig, president of Swig Equities, a privately owned real estate investment and development company in Manhattan, says its 65 employees returned to the office in fall 2020 on a hybrid basis and went to five days a week in the office in May after all were vaccinated.
However, Swig says he’s now closely monitoring the new variant and will consider mandating masks and even requiring coronavirus testing a few times a week if the threat increases. He says he will reverse course and start hybrid or remote work if the situation gets worse. “My first and foremost job is to protect all my staff. I am going to err on the side of caution.”
Levin-Scherz notes many employers have set multiple dates for return to the workplace over the past year and, at this point, are looking to resolve more uncertainty before they set new dates.
Brian Cornell, Target Corp.’s chief executive officer, recently told The Associated Press it’s “avoiding putting dates on the calendar” for a mandated return to its Minneapolis headquarters. Target started gradually opening collaboration areas and workspaces in the fall for employees who wanted an option to work onsite. “We’re going to learn along the way and make sure we make the right steps for our team.”
And on this side of the border, as of Dec. 3, some Canadian employers, including the City of Toronto, were still moving ahead with return-to-office plans for early 2022.