Delta Variant Casts Uncertainty Over Office Returns

The office sector was expecting to become lively this fall with employees returning to the workplace, but the COVID-19 strain is jeopardizing plans.
People wearing masks in a meeting room

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An increase in COVID-19 cases in the U.S. has more companies reconsidering their timelines to get employees back into the office. The highly contagious delta variant is spreading new concerns, just as many companies have been preparing to bring workers back to the office this fall.

Several tech companies, such as Google and Apple, have recently delayed their return dates from September to October. The ride-hailing company Lyft pushed back its return-to-office date by six months to Feb. 2, 2022. The New York Times has indefinitely postponed its plans to return to the office.

Realogy CEO Ryan Schneider told CNBC that the brokerage is renovating its New Jersey headquarters to embrace hybrid work for the long haul. “We’re knocking down walls pretty soon, and we’re making it into a much more collaborative space,” Schneider says. “Instead of having 1,000 people a day here, we want 250 a day here, but to do a collaboration.”

Some companies—recognizing that some employees are ready to return to work in person at an office—are giving their staff members the option to decide. But companies may limit that invitation, however, to the vaccinated and to those who wear a mask.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recently updated its guidance on indoor masking. In that vein, Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, is requiring all its employees to wear masks in the areas most affected by the delta variant. Other companies are following suit.

“As organizations push return dates out further, there will be a greater need for flexibility on return-to-office requirements,” George Penn, vice president of HR practices at the enterprise research firm Gartner, told CNBC. “If the company is performing well and individual employees are performing well remotely, many will beg the question ‘why are you mandating a return?’ ”

Penn predicts that many organizations may consider a shorter-term delay than a longer one, such as Lyft’s six-month extension.

Workers back in the office or anticipating a return soon report they are most concerned about getting sick from COVID-19 and losing flexibility in their workday, according to the June McKinsey report. “People want to be assured that precautions are maintained and they aren’t being forced back to work for the sake of the bottom line,” Bruce Y. Lee, professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy, told CNBC.