Companies delaying office returns amid omicron uncertainty

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For companies whose employees are still toiling from home, the question of when to bring their full workforces back to the office has become even trickier.

In a pandemic when many decisions have hinged on risk tolerance, the questions around the coronavirus’s new omicron variant has complicated the process of calculating those hazards. Major corporations that had planned to shepherd all their employees back into offices in early 2022 now have to decide whether those dates make sense in light of further evidence of the pandemic’s unpredictability.

“There remains so much uncertainty, and uncertainty equals instability,” said Lars Schmidt, an author and podcast host who focuses on the future of work. “So when you’re trying to pretend that doesn’t exist and push people back into something they’re not ready for, you’re going to be met with resistance from employees.”

Last week, Google and Uber became some of the first major employers in the United States to announce that they would postpone their Jan. 10 return date—not to another specific day, but indefinitely. Ford Motor Co. said Monday that it was pushing its expected return from January to March.

Several other major companies said they had no updates on their plans to return to their offices early next year or did not respond to inquiries from The Washington Post.

The question of when to return to offices is a niche problem. Most Americans already have returned to their workplaces or have worked on site throughout the pandemic. About 11 percent of U.S. workers were teleworking because of the coronavirus as of November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Worldwide, many of those who have worked from home in the past year and a half are in the scientific, technical or financial services industries.

Those workers’ employers face a timing conundrum: Employees want and expect advance notice if their return-to-office plans will change, but much about omicron will remain unknown for weeks. Scientists are racing to discover whether the mutation-riddled variant will prove more transmissible, virulent or capable of evading the body’s immune defenses compared with other variants.

Alanah Mitchell, a professor of information systems at Drake University, said it’s logical for companies to avoid setting new return dates for now, since many have postponed multiple times.

“The decision to say, ‘We’re not sure when we’re going to be back’ is a good decision because it’s a little bit more honest,” said Mitchell, who has written about the future of work.

More companies may follow suit, which Schmidt said would be a positive development. Repeatedly setting new return dates, he said, gives employees “whiplash” and forces them to manage constantly changing logistics around transportation, child care and other parts of their lives. Leaving the time frame open-ended offers employees more peace of mind, he said.

Conversations about where employees will work are taking place against a troubling backdrop for companies that recently have lost employees who want a more meaningful mission, better compensation or less grueling hours. Companies with an unstable working environment or that are forcing employees back into offices against their wishes risk seeing their staffs shrink amid what some have termed this year’s “Great Resignation,” Schmidt said.

In a Gallup poll published in October, 54 percent of employees who are working remotely at least part of the time said they wanted to split their time between working at home and in an office, 37 percent said they hoped to work from home exclusively and 9 percent said they wanted to work from an office full-time.

“The challenge of this moment is there are some employees who are desperate to go back; there are some who will never go back,” Schmidt said. “The companies that . . . publicly commit to flexibility in those constructs are the ones that will be at an advantage in this time where there’s so much talent and mobility.”

In the absence of certainty around the future of their physical workplaces, AJ Thomas said many companies are emphasizing their guiding principles to employees—such as regular coronavirus testing or remote work on Fridays—rather than setting immovable return dates. Most corporate leaders are trying to consistently convey their companies’ values in their communications with staff about going back to offices, said Thomas, who studies employee experience and is a leadership coach at the WKND WSDM Lab.

“Knowing that the constraint here is that the date may always move because there may be other factors out there,” she said, “I think the majority of leaders are saying, ‘What is the consistent thing that we can communicate to provide some stability to our employee base?’ “

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