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COVID-19 Thwarts Return-to-Office Plans—Again

Dec. 14, 2021
The latest on how companies are responding to the recent surge of COVID-19 cases as the delta variant keeps its hold on the nation—and how the omicron variant may further complicate the return to the office.

The past month has presented companies with a number of challenges for return-to-office plans.

COVID-19 cases are once again on the rise. The U.S. is averaging over 120,000 cases and 1,200 deaths daily. Monday, the U.S. surpassed 50 million confirmed cases and is nearing 800,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

For many parts of the country, this current surge is the worst of the pandemic or at least the worst since December 2020, before vaccines were widely available to the public. That is alarming given that 61% of all Americans are fully vaccinated.

The delta variant is still driving this current surge. That has experts concerned about what could happen in the coming weeks. 

Information is unfolding in real time about the omicron variant. Since omicron was first detected and designated a variant of concern by the World Health Organization on Nov. 26, it has been identified in 70 nations. In the United States, cases have already been detected in 30 states and Washington, D.C.

Medical professionals are cautioning about the dual concern of COVID-19 and influenza infections. And as past surges have shown, the virus travels when people do. And millions of Americans are expected to gather with friends and family for holiday and religious celebrations (if they haven't already).

Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates for private employers, federal contractors and healthcare workers are each being blocked by federal judges, causing further uncertainty for companies on how to proceed.

Some companies are opting to suspend COVID-19 vaccine requirements, but others are keeping them. That was to be expected, as EHS Today previously reported on a survey that found 32% employers would only require employees to be vaccinated if the Emergency Temporary Standard takes effect.

Other companies have stopped short of mandates but are offering incentives or slapping penalties on the unvaccinated. For example, Kroger, the second largest general retailer and the seventh-largest private employer in America, announced Dec. 14 that starting in the new year, the company will no longer provide paid COVID-19 leave for unvaccinated employees. Furthermore, Kroger will apply a $50 monthly health insurance surcharge to salaried non-union workers who are unvaccinated and enrolled in a company healthcare plan. 

Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, and the constantly evolving or new information continues to be a source of confusion and frustration for employer and employees alike.

“I probably can’t say the words I said to myself when I first heard about it,” said Marina González, head of talent management at the Atlanta company Payrix to The New York Times in an article detailing omicron and return-to-office plans. Payrix wants an early 2022 return, but the company has not determined a date. “Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, something else comes along.”

In an article from The Wall Street Journal, journalists Chip Cutter and Emily Glazer observe: “The muddled picture is causing a broad reassessment across the corporate sphere. Some companies are rethinking vaccine policies and pushing off return-to-office plans, while others are working to maintain existing timelines to bring people together. The varied responses reflect the difficulties many companies face in sizing up the state of the pandemic now and its trajectory in the months ahead, more than a dozen executives said.”

To be clear, many companies have not ever or only briefly closed their doors during the pandemic. Health care, emergency responders, manufacturers and construction workers have all had to show up to work. They have kept the economy going and the nation supplied with essential goods and services.

But for the millions of other workers, they have been sent home to do their work, sometimes alongside roommates, significant others and their children. There has been ample coverage of this mass shift to work from home, including here at EHS Today.

Some companies have begun the return-to-the office plan. Office occupancy in the U.S. increased from 33% in August to 40% in December, according to data from Kastle Systems. But for many workers, coming into the office is a personal choice and not required five days a week.

For the past 14 months, LinkedIn has tracked where workers are working using the company's Workforce Confidence surveys of about 5,000 LinkedIn members every two weeks. LinkedIn found that the percentage of people working onsite has risen slightly to 50% in November 2021 from 40% in September 2020. During that time, the percentage of those working full remote has declined to 34% from 44%, while hybrid work has increased to 15% from just over 10%. 

A number of large organizations, including Ford Motor Co. and Meta Platforms Inc., the parent company of Facebook, announced they would delay their return-to-office plans. Lyft Inc. already told corporate employees they wouldn’t be required back into the offices until 2023.

A small number of companies are opting to close their offices and go fully remote, especially those faced with the decision of whether or not to renew their office leases.

Jim Clifton, chairman and CEO at Gallup, wrote a blog about the return to the workplace. Specifically, he sought to know from his team about how many U.S. employees will not be returning to the office full time in the future.

According to Clifton and Gallup, there are 125 million full-time jobs in America. Of those, about 60 million (50%) report that their current job can be done remotely working from home. Gallup interviewed a sample of people. Three in 10 (30%) said they would prefer to “never” come into the office during the week, 10% said they would prefer working all five days in the office, and 60% want a hybrid work model. Of those, the most common preference was to work two to three days in the office each week.

Respondents who never wanted to come into the office and those who wanted a hybrid work model were asked about the motivations behind their answer. Here are their most common responses: eliminates my commute, improves my overall well-being and offers flexibility to balance family needs or other obligations.

“Within the combination of those three demands lies a very powerful force of human nature -- one that won't accept the traditional office routine going forward,” Clifton writes.

Clifton and his analysts at Gallup estimate that “when the pandemic wanes and something close to ‘normal’ returns, there will be a 37% reduction of in-person days worked per week for those 60 million employees who can work from home.”

In other words, remote work and empty desks at the office is something employers are going to live with long after the pandemic is declared over. 

Editor's Note: This article was last updated Dec. 16, 2021.

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