The Delta Variant’s Influence on Returning to the Office This Fall

In late winter and early spring 2021, many companies felt cautiously optimistic about creating a tiered plan to return employees to offices full time if not by the end of summer, then by early fall. With the Delta variant’s rise as the highly contagious, dominant strain of COVID-19 and Covid cases rising in all 50 states, many U.S.-based companies—including Wells Fargo, Uber, Lyft, Jeffries Financial Group, Inc., Google, BlackRock, Inc., and Apple—have postponed return-to-office dates. Even Amazon has pushed back until January 2022 the return of its corporate staff, several months later than the original September 7 return.

Momentum to return to offices had begun to pick up speed in June. One study found the percentage of employees returning to the office up 50% — a number that brought total average office capacity from 10% in March to 20% just three months later.

In July, U.S. COVID cases increased 171% and deaths increased 42%, according to the New York Times. The paper’s August 27 update showed a 24% in new cases, and a hundredfold increase in deaths. The virus hot spots remain in FL, MS, TX, AL, GA, SC, TN, AR, KY, IN, WY, OR, WA, and WV, but researchers worry hot spots will grow and spread from those states.

Other companies, however, haven’t yet modified their in-person plans because they had already set deadlines in late September and into October before asking workforces to return. A CNBC survey of CNBC Workforce Executive Council (WEC) members found nearly 40% indicating they’re not changing their plans because of the Delta variant.

Another recent survey conducted by research firm Gartner also found employees leery of the Delta variant. The percentage of companies planning to reopen workplaces in Q3 fell more than half from when asked in April compared to the July 28 poll. The survey also found:

  • 76% of HR leaders reporting employees hesitant to return.
  • 24% reporting employees reluctant or refusing to return to in-person work at all.
  • 68% indicating employee fears about catching COVID-19 from an unvaccinated coworker.
  • 28% saying their companies have decreased the number of employees permitted in the workplace at any one time.
  • Fewer than 10% of HR leaders indicating their companies would require or plans to require vaccinations. Although a low number, it’s up from the 2% from responses to the same question asked in a February survey.

Vaccine Mandates Rising in Popularity

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently recommended fully vaccinated people resume wearing masks inside — a data-driven change from earlier recommendations — in areas with high coronavirus transmission rates. The organization continues to stress the importance of everyone eligible to get vaccinated. Thanks to the Delta variant, the coronavirus continues to spread — and unvaccinated people remain at greatest risk for serious illness and possible death.

Many companies — like Vanguard, McDonald’s, American Airlines, Target, and Walmart — have encouraged their employees to get vaccinated. Pfizer and Microsoft now require their U.S.-based employees to receive the vaccine or submit to weekly testing; the companies have also levied this requirement on their vendors. Other companies, like healthcare organizations and school districts, and city governments are mandating their employees get vaccinated.

Creating a mandate is not without its challenges, however. Many companies worry that instituting a COVID vaccine policy will result in employee attrition in an already tight labor market where employers across all sectors are struggling to attract, hire, and retain employees.

A Key Ingredient for Returning to Work? Flexibility

Companies who’ve developed return-to-office plans for this fall will need to stay flexible. Chances are, sweeping mandates and definitive plans will only set them — and their employees — up for frustration. Experimenting and keeping options open is the best approach.

Other suggestions for creating a safe environment in which workers can feel comfortable about working in the office — and not from their dining room tables — include:

  • Starting small. Consider creating employee pods or teams of the same people who will work together on specific days each week.
  • Encourage everyone to wear masks while in office.
  • Keep prioritizing employees’ well-being, considering how best to support them through challenges they face associated with childcare, elder care, mental health, and other issues. Those employees who cannot receive vaccines because of existing health conditions remain at high risk. Be cognizant of any employee facing challenges, since mandating a return to in-person work without acknowledging and addressing these issues can have a profoundly negative impact on morale and retention.
  • Create workable plans that don’t just look good on paper but have value when implemented. Keep options open and embrace a transparent approach with clear communication between leadership and other key decisionmakers and employees. Opt for an honest, up-front approach — even when you don’t have all the answers.
  • Enhance your communications. Everyone’s experienced anxiety for the past 18 months. Recognize and acknowledge it — and then communicate in ways designed to help reduce or diffuse (not feed) that anxiety. Consider creating employee advisory groups who can conduct pulse checks or collaborate with leadership to make recommendations on what work looks like. Give employees plenty of time (at least a month or more) should you find it necessary to change work-from-home policies.
  • Rethink your biases about what does (and doesn’t) constitute productivity. While some leaders feel the pandemic and its requirement to work from home damaged productivity levels, in many cases, the opposite was true. Unfortunately, a lack of in-person meetings, both spontaneous and planned, meant a deluge of virtual meetings appearing on many people’s calendars. Consider all those meetings — could some information be conveyed via email instead?

Remote work planned well and done right doesn’t affect productivity negatively. Is it possible to innovate remotely? Absolutely. Think about all the ways companies and their employees pivoted and adjusted to continue developing products and services, helping customers, building client relationships, and solving problems — all remotely. In-person collaboration wasn’t possible. Think about how to keep that innovation and creativity flowing. Perhaps your employees don’t need to return to the office full time after all.

We’re Not Out of the Woods Just Yet

One realization many organizations’ leaders have made is that perhaps a hybrid approach to work is the best solution not just for the immediate future, but in the long term. Companies have rethought the size of their footprints, and many have concluded their spaces require some “right-sizing.”

Rethinking how and where employees work — a conversation certainly exacerbated by the pandemic — may have companies reconsidering their return to in-person work anyway. And if your company finds itself having that conversation, you should talk to one of the members of CREA United. Our partners, including those in the corporate and office groups, are uniquely equipped to help companies determine the best approach for safely returning their employees to the office and evaluating the space they need now, and in the future.

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