[CNBC, Getty Images]
On Tuesday, Google became the latest major company to announce another delay in its return-to-office plan, pushing its reopening date to January 2022. Most recently, the tech giant planned its return for October, which was a delay from September, which was a delay from July 2021.
Companies including Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Starbucks already announced postponements with similar timelines, and more employers are expected to follow as the U.S. heads into the fall with the delta variant spreading throughout much of the country.
The string of events has officially turned return-to-office plans into “The Great Wait,” says Kate Bullinger, CEO of the management consultancy United Minds, which advises Fortune 500 clients on organizational change. As of late August, 66% of organizations are delaying office reopenings due to Covid variants, according to a Gartner survey of 238 executive leaders.
The inundation of delay announcements is a reminder that 18 months into the coronavirus pandemic, the future of the workplace is as uncertain as ever — and employers are spending a lot of money to figure out what to do next.
‘Can we afford the luxury of bringing employees back?’
When Dr. Neal Mills, chief medical officer for the professional services firm Aon, began advising on return-to-work plans in the spring, clients just wanted to understand the logistics of how to bring employees back. How would they monitor employees’ self-reported symptoms? Should they do temperature checks at the door? Was it even a good idea to ask about employees’ vaccination status?
Now, Mills says, employers have taken a step back to even consider: “Can we afford the luxury of bringing our employees back into the workplace?”
“Each day the answers change,” he says, and “dynamic information is creating analysis paralysis for employers.”
Now, business leaders are in the unenviable position of trying to walk back return plans without dissolving them altogether, even though the longer the pandemic goes on, the criteria for creating a safe space and culture for workers gets harder. Many who’ve tried to set return dates are now “further kicking the can down the road.”
It’s expensive, too. Each time a proposed return date gets pushed back, “that changes the surveillance strategies or policies that may be required in the workplace,” Mills adds, which can cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars.
Financial and opportunity costs of returning
As employers chase down solutions to an unending list of safety questions, “the first thing employers have to do is look at the expense of trying to bring employees back,” Mills says.
The first expense is surveillance, as in tracking who is and isn’t vaccinated and keeping those records stored securely. Then, for those who opt out of the shot or have a religious or medical exemption, employers will have to front the cost of regular Covid testing, whether that’s onsite, at home or through a third-party facility. They might have to factor in the cost of providing reasonable accommodations in the workplace for those who qualify and ask for them, such as personal protective equipment or modifying spaces to ensure social distancing. They could also need to invest in systems that keep unvaccinated and untested employees away from the workplace — for some companies, Mills says, that means turning off employee badges every 24 hours if they haven’t updated their vaccination or negative test status.
Then, there are all of the nontangible costs of shepherding employees through a messy return: loss of productivity, deterioration of trust, a negative association between workplace policies and their jobs. And finally, leaders must recognize that a premature return to work during the health outbreak could lead to employees getting sick with the virus.
As a health professional, “we provide the information,” Mills says. “We can tell [employers] what these programs are going to cost to be in compliance with the law and also maintain or build a better culture. It’s a staggering decision.”
The risk of waiting too long
Some management consultants, like Bullinger, say there are also risks in keeping employees home too long after offering the potential to return to offices, particularly regarding workers’ mental health. Some research has drawn a connection between remote work during the pandemic to an increase in social isolation and overwork, for example.
Stats vary widely, but one buzzy mid-August survey by Morning Consult on behalf of The New York Times found that 45% of workers want to be in-office full-time, compared with 31% who want to be remote full-time and 24% who want a hybrid arrangement.
Business leaders must be mindful of workers who don’t have ideal home-office setups, or who thrive off in-person interactions, Bullinger says.
Overall, “workers are going to come out of this wanting agency in how and where they work, but also the ability to connect meaningfully with people,” Bullinger says. She says gauging employee sentiment and providing flexibility will remain key: “Where is your employees’ mindset? How do you create a situation where people are going to have the flexibility to come back or not come back depending on their personal level of comfort?”
In many ways, business leaders are back at square one in determining how and when to bring employees back to shared spaces. But this time, they have to consider whether setting plans, scrapping them and trying to start over again could cause employee turnover in today’s tight labor market.
As employers do everything they can to be as minimally disruptive as possible, Mills says, they’re “keenly aware of their communications and are appropriately being tight-lipped around return-to-work strategies until it is truly time to communicate. The last thing they want to do is make an announcement and then have to retract that a week or two later, which we have seen.”
But staying quiet on a new plan could be just as disruptive to some workers, especially parents who must plan child care and are more likely to have health concerns around office reopenings.
Bullinger encourages as much transparency as possible, even if decisions aren’t final. One way is to give a general time frame of when leaders will even go back to the drawing board of their return, whether that’s in the final quarter of the year or early 2022.
“The important thing is to say, ‘We’re going to revisit that, and we’re going to continue to communicate with you as we move into the fall,'” Bullinger says. “Employees want to understand the rationale for decisions. And they also understand that the situation is really fluid. If leaders could be authentic about that, and communicate that in a clear and consistent way, that goes a long way with employees.”
By Jennifer Liu