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Return to office paused (again) as COVID rages: Will we ever go back?

The omicron variant has thrown America's great return to the office into disarray – perhaps for months.

Most companies who had notified employees they would need to come back to the office at least part time early next year have pushed back those plans or are considering doing so because of the latest COVID-19 spike, according to human resources experts and surveys.

Among those slamming the brakes on office reopenings are household names such as Apple, Ford Motor and Fidelity Investments.

“Most executives have just abandoned the return to the office” until omicron no longer poses a health threat, says Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University economics professor who has studied the work-from-home trend and spoken to officials at several hundred companies.

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Remote work pay cuts: Nearly 50% of workers would take a salary reduction to avoid returning to the office, survey says.

The omicron variant has thrown America's great return to the office into disarray – perhaps for months.

Twenty-two percent of corporate leaders have delayed their reopening plans and another 34% haven’t yet made a decision, according to a Gartner survey last week of 129 executives who attended a company webinar on return to the office and vaccination mandates. A third said omicron has had no impact on their plans.

Keeping a close eye on 'return to office'

Meanwhile, just 5% of firms that already reopened their workplaces are reversing course and sending people home, the Gartner survey shows.

“In general, we are seeing those that have already brought people back to the office are continuing with those plans while keeping a close eye on the situation,” says Bill Armstrong, vice president of Global Upside, a consulting firm.

By contrast, he adds, “Many of those that had plans to bring people back in 2022 have at least for the moment put those plans on hold.”

That means many of the downtown restaurants, shops and other businesses that rely heavily on purchases by office workers could struggle longer.  

Office occupancy hit 40%

Worker occupancy of offices in 10 large cities hit a pandemic high of 40.6% the week ending Dec. 1 before edging down to a still elevated 39.5% the following week, according to Kastle Systems, which tracks employee swipes of devices such as key cards.

Kastle Chairman Mark Ein says he was expecting a leap in occupancy to above 50% after New Year’s day, but that’s no longer the case.

“A lot of companies were using that target date,” he says. “Companies have tended to plan return to work around milestone dates.”

Omicron has proven far more contagious than the delta variant and the original virus – accounting for 73.2% of new COVID-19 infections in the U.S. – but it has shown signs of being less virulent. It’s unclear if that’s the case but even if so, it could still lead to enough hospitalizations to overwhelm health systems, experts fear.

Omicron has proven far more contagious than the delta variant and the original coronavirus.

Apple said on Dec. 16 it’s pushing off its return to the office, slated for Feb. 1, after several previous delays.

“We are delaying the start of our hybrid work pilot to a date yet to be determined,” company Tim Cook wrote in a memo to employees obtained by Bloomberg. “Our offices remain open and many of our colleagues are coming in regularly, including our teams in Greater China and elsewhere.”

Google, Ford and Meta, formerly known as Facebook, are also letting employees postpone their return. Lyft, the ride-hailing company, told staffers they won’t be required to come back to offices until 2023.

Fidelity Investments closed its offices in Boston and elsewhere in New England amid the COVID-19 surge. And JPMorgan Chase is letting employees, many of whom had come back, work from home at least through the holidays.

'Irresponsible' to return to office without safeguards

Many health experts and companies have shifted their views just recently. Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University, told the Associated Press recently that “there will be a constant stream of new variants” and “we shouldn’t disrupt normal business activity at every possible trigger.”

But Gostin told USA TODAY this week his thinking has evolved as news of omicron’s rapid spread, and its potential to cause hospitalization and death, has emerged.

“A general return to work after the holidays is worrisome,” he says.“ I think it would be irresponsible to do it unless workers are fully vaccinated, boosted and tested.”

About 62% of Americans are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gostin says delaying office returns would give companies more time to assure employees are inoculated.

A health worker administers a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination clinic at the Keystone First Wellness Center in Chester, Pa., Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021.

Biden vaccine mandate 

A White House mandate for employers with 100 or more employees to ensure they’re vaccinated or tested weekly starting Feb. 9 could be temporarily blocked by the Supreme Court. But most large employers are requiring employee vaccinations or testing anyway, says James Sullivan, co-chair of law firm Cozen O’Connor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration-Workplace Safety Practice Group.

Health officials, however, have said two vaccine shots may not be enough to fight off omicron while a booster should provide adequate protection.

Yet company decisions to put off office returns go beyond health protocol. Dire worker shortages have given workers more bargaining power, leading many to switch jobs. Companies don’t want to further alienate workers who prefer to work from home and may bolt if forced to return to the office, a stance solidified by omicron, Bloom and Armstrong say.

More than half of employed Americans working from home said they would consider quitting if required to return to the workplace before they felt comfortable, according to a Harris Poll survey.

“If there is anything we learned from the pandemic, it is that if your plan doesn't have flexibility, you should expect significant pushback from employees,” Armstrong says. “The staff wants to feel that their safety comes first above all else.”

More than half of employed Americans working from home said they would consider quitting if required to return to the workplace before they felt comfortable, according to a Harris Poll survey for OfficeSpace Software early this month.

Twenty-two percent of corporate leaders have delayed their reopening plans and another 34% haven’t yet made a decision, according to a Gartner survey taken in December 2021 of 129 executives.

No return to work until May 2022?

It’s possible, of course, that omicron could wane within weeks, allowing firms to resume their back-to-office plans. Reports this week that omicron may be less severe are encouraging.

But it also could be February or March before omicron recedes as a health hazard, Bloom says. At that point, companies should give employees at least two months before they have to return so they can change living arrangements, if necessary, he says. That would mean many employees may not come back until May, a delay that could be pushed to Labor Day, depending on summer travel plans, Bloom says.  

Many smaller and midsize companies are more eager to return to the office for the benefits of in-person collaboration and are less likely to shelve those plans, says Kathryn Bakich, health compliance practice leader at Segal, an employee benefits consulting firm.

But even some smaller businesses are erring on the side of caution.

The 15 administrative employees at Envision Tee – a Dubuque, Iowa-based custom T-shirt printing company – have been back in the office since August 2020. But CEO Tom Rauen says they’ll go back to working remotely after the holidays.

The omicron variant, he says, is having a bigger impact on his staff, with five employees contracting mild or moderate cases over the past month, compared to just one COVID-19 case previously.

Rauen worries office employees could catch the virus during holiday gatherings and infect production workers, disrupting output.

“January and February are typically slower months in our business so it makes sense to keep everybody healthy,” he says.

Contributing: Karen Weintraub and the Associated Press