All sizes of companies are considering whether to send their workers back to work as the new Omicron version adds an additional layer of uncertainty.
Alphabet’s Google and the nation’s second largest automaker 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. In recent days, officials from the United Kingdom of Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Norway asked employees to consider working remotely due to concerns over the variant.
Meta, formerly known as Facebook, and ridesharing company Lyft separately announced Tuesday that they’re letting workers delay their return when offices fully reopen early next year. Meta plans to still open its headquarters in January, but workers will be able to defer their return until 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 for Meta, said the latest decision recognizes “some aren’t quite ready to come back.”
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. Many large companies delayed a mandatory return until the beginning of next year because of the Delta variant.
“A year and a half ago, we thought this would be for a very short time,” said 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 employers with 5.2 million workers showed on average 34% of remote-capable employees remain remote, but that would decline to 27% by the first quarter of 2022. But the survey was completed before news of Omicron emerged.
These delayed plans will be another setback for already in trouble restaurants, bars and dry cleaners that depend on office workers to patronize their businesses. People living in areas like New York’s Manhattan and Midtown are particularly hard hit, as they have been dominated by empty office buildings.
These delays are occurring even though U.S. Health officials claim that omicron might be less deadly than delta. They continue to encourage 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,” Gostin said. “We shouldn’t disrupt normal business activity at every possible trigger.”
He said that layers such as vaccinations, ventilation and masks can be very effective at stopping virus spread from a work environment.
The stream of new versions is still having an impact on the mental health and well-being of business owners.
“Omicron has made me realize work life will never return to the way it was pre-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 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 fall, but delta pushed back those plans to early next year. Omicron is forcing her to rethink these plans and whether or not employees should be returning. She renewed the office lease last year but said 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. Some companies are still looking at new safety precautions.
Kent Swig of Swig Equities LLC is a Manhattan-based privately held real estate investment and developer company. After being vaccinated, 65 of its employees went back to work on a hybrid schedule in Fall 2020. They also started working five days a weeks in May.
However, Swig says he’s now closely monitoring the new variant and will consider mandating masks and even requiring COVID-19 testing a few times a week if the threat increases. Swig stated that he is willing to reverse course and switch to remote or hybrid work in the event of a worsening situation.
“My first and foremost job is to protect all my staff,” Swig said. “I am going to err on the side of caution.”
Levin-Scherz pointed out that many employers have established multiple dates to return to work over the last year and are now looking for ways to reduce uncertainty.
Target CEO Brian Cornell recently told The Associated Press that it’s “avoiding putting dates on the calendar” for a mandated return to its Minneapolis headquarters. Target began opening workspaces and collaboration areas in fall to employees looking for the option of working on-site.
“We’re going to learn along the way and make sure we make the right steps for our team,” Cornell said.
Lyft said the decision to let workers choose to work remotely for all of 2022 wasn’t tied exclusively to omicron but said 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,” said Ashley Adams, a Lyft spokeswoman.
Google continues to delay the return of its mandatory employees. The company spokesperson stated in an email that it had updated its guidance to state that return will not start before January 10, but would depend on the local circumstances. According to the company, it has opened over 90% of U.S. office and almost 40% of U.S. employees have visited its offices in recent weeks.
Ford stated Monday that hybrid work will be delayed at Dearborn, Michigan’s headquarters. However, it plans to begin a pilot phase with select employees in February. It had previously said it wouldn’t start the hybrid work model before January.
Ford claimed that hybrid work models affect approximately 18,000 North Americans. In May 2020, hourly workers in manufacturing returned to work.