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After more than one year of remote work, companies are starting to usher employees back to the office with varying degrees of workforce enthusiasm. As organizations prep the “new normal” office, a potentially more transmissible coronavirus variant is complicating workplace reentry. Amid surging U.S. cases, plateauing vaccination rates and myriad unknowns, how is the Delta variant impacting return to work plans?

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“While the Delta variant is giving pause to many individuals when it comes to their comfort level of ‘getting back to the new normal,’ it remains very specific to the individual at this point in time and does not seem to be delaying re-entry plans,” said Amy Mosher, chief people officer at isolved.

Similarly, George Penn, vice president in the Gartner HR practice, said the “Delta variant is not causing a seismic change” for companies and office reentry strategies while explaining that some organizations are pausing or pushing out “expansion until they have more data.”

In the last year, companies have implemented a wide range of office redesign strategies and policies to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 in-house, including plexiglass dividers, air purification systems, new social distancing guidance, mask and inoculation mandates and more.

While discussing conversations with clients, Mosher said many of these businesses have redesigned their offices to accommodate social distancing in “the early days of reintegration,” bolstered air filtration, distributed PPE and implemented additional cleaning strategies.

“It is very likely that many businesses may have become relaxed about this in the last month but could heighten these efforts again,” Mosher said.

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The CDC has provided guidelines on mask-wearing for vaccinated and unvaccinated people in a host of environments, including indoor spaces. These recommendations have helped shape policies for companies planning office reentry. As the Delta variant surges around the globe, yet future guidance could similarly alter workforce reintegration strategies.

While making note of the WHO’s recent recommendation about indoor masking for vaccinated adults and areas reimplementing indoor mask mandates due to Delta variant concerns, Mosher said the majority of employers she has spoken with “have not changed course” as a result of the variant “even with regard to wearing masks indoors, return-to-office strategies or vaccination requirements.”

As companies bring employees back to the in-person workplace amid a modern plague, many have implemented vaccine mandates or are considering doing. According to LaSalle Network’s first Office Re-Entry Index published in March, 52% of respondents were not planning to mandate employee vaccinations and this number increased to 69% in the second index published earlier this month.

Citing a company survey conducted earlier this year, Mosher said about half (44%) would mandate COVID-19 vaccination for their employees. But could the rise of a more contagious variant, shift company attitudes toward implementing vaccine mandates?

“It remains a highly sensitive topic. It’s now a very sensitive time in reintegration because the anxieties many of us felt over the last year are re-surfacing amid stories of surges that mimic patterns that have, in the past, sparked social-distancing mandates,” Mosher said.

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Many employers are concerned about employee pushback regarding new workplace policies during the reentry process. At the same time, a tight labor market, employee burnout and a speculated Great Resignation could complicate reentry strategies and make it harder for companies to implement more stringent in-house safety protocols.

For example, Mosher said many employers are “struggling to re-hire” and could “consider incentivizing vaccines,” but believes that most companies “will hold off from a full-blown mandate allowing employees to maintain control of their own” health decisions.

“We are seeing many executive teams going into extensive dialogue regarding masking and vaccination requirements for the office,” Penn said. “As this new Delta variant expands or stabilizes, we will start to see organizations making tougher and harder decisions for the future of the co-located workforce.”

Caregiving and virtual schooling factor in

Over the last year, many schools adopted remote learning curricula at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, many remote workers have also served as caregivers for others in their households, complicating return to work strategies. According to a poll published earlier this year, 27% of remote workers with dependents said they would need a minimum of one to three months’ notice to “be able to go back to the office.”

When determining an employee’s work location, Mosher said “personal choice will be critically important,” adding that “the determining factor may be the upcoming return to school for many children.”

While many schools are planning to operate in person this fall, states across the U.S. are experiencing surging cases. At the same time, vaccine trials involving younger age groups are still underway and about half the population remains unvaccinated. In tandem, these factors could set the stage for a possible fourth COVID wave and return to online learning in the months ahead.

“In speaking with employees, there continues to be a concern regarding how the Delta variant will affect the upcoming school year, which we know could have a domino effect for working parents’ need for continued work location flexibility, among other consequences,” Mosher said.

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Emphasis on flexibility and employee preference

Overall, both representatives emphasized the importance of flexibility as companies plan operational strategies. Mosher remained “hopeful” that executives continue to “allow for adequate flexibility for their staff” and encourage staff to “exercise personal choice” on their work location preferences.

“One important lesson we have learned from other organizations returning employees to the office is that its imperative leaders have flexible mindsets, principles and policies in place to allow for rapid adaptation to changing conditions,” Penn said.

In the U.S., more than 163 million people have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, representing nearly half of the total population (49%), according to the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker, although state-by-state inoculations vary markedly. The rise of new COVID-19 mutants presents new challenges and more unknowns for in-person work office planning.

“Should Covid surges continue, business leaders will need to re-evaluate vaccination rules and reintegration plans but employee flexibility – such as a hybrid workforce – could minimize the personal and business impact of all-or-nothing approaches,” Mosher said.

As companies plan their office reentry, Penn suggested that companies adopt “radical flexibility” with these reintegration plans, such as granting both employees and their managers “more control to discuss and agree to when, where and how they work.”

“Not only is radical flexibility good for employees, but it is also great for business,” Penn said.

When a company offers such radical flexibility, Penn said that employees are three times as likely to be “high performers,” citing Gartner research.

In the interim, many companies are continuing to operate in fully remote or hybrid capacities, and, as the shift to remote work highlighted, these work arrangements emphasize the importance of virtual collaboration tools and IT investments.

“The pandemic shed light on a company’s digital infrastructure and digital readiness. If a business hadn’t invested in virtual collaboration tools and other remote hardware pre-2020, most leaders understand the need now after many had to transition to a fully remote workforce,” Mosher said.

Even as companies phase employees back into the traditional office or plan to do so in the months ahead, organizations may need to prepare operations for a full about-face amid variants and public health uncertainty.

“Digitizing [the] employee experience is imperative to not only meet the expectations of today’s workforce but also remain business continuity for unforeseen circumstances,” Mosher said.