Omicron Variant May Delay Return-to-Office Plans

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If you asked some of the top companies last year when they planned to fully return to the office after COVID-19, they would’ve said 2022 with no hesitation.

Yet, here we are less than a month away from 2022 and these same companies are faced with a new threat called Omicron.

International vaccine inequality has spawned new variants of the COVID-19 virus and now health officials are concerned about what effect it may have on the fully vaccinated.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) confirmed the first case of Omicron in the United States on Dec. 1. The individual who tested positive had returned home to California after a trip to South Africa and had been fully vaccinated.

Mystery of Omicron

Researchers aren’t clear if the vaccine will stop it, government officials are unsure what level of intervention might be needed to deal with the mutant strain, and companies have no idea whether they should proceed with their return-to-office plans.

The Return to Office “Wait and See” Method

This phrase is being thrown around in regard to COVID-19, but most companies truly are waiting and seeing what will happen with Omicron before they make a decision.

Wells Fargo is one of the companies scheduled to return to the office in January. In fact, their original plan had been to go back in September but it was postponed by the Delta variant.

The company’s analysts recently told investors that in a worst-case scenario, Omicron would only tack a few more months onto their return-to-office plans.

Earlier this year, other multinational companies like Amazon, Apple, and Facebook all announced January 2022 as the transition period. 

If Omicron is truly as bad as some think, leaders will have to make quick decisions to ensure employee safety. One false move and they could see a loss in staff at a time when companies are already desperate for workers.

One study from Forrester Research found that 30% of companies not supporting remote work may see monthly resignation rates as high as 2.5% in 2022. And this data was released long before Omicron was on the map. Companies could exacerbate resignation rates if staff feel they don’t have a clear plan to deal with returning to the office.

Mandatory Vaccine Uncertainty

The Biden administration released a vaccine mandate in November for any businesses with more than 100 employees. Although the White House claimed the rule was backed by OSHA’s ability to set workplace health and safety standards, it was blocked by a federal judge.

Many companies have voluntarily chosen to proceed with vaccine mandates on their own, but it leaves a big question mark for everyone else. Will people return to enclosed offices if they don’t know the vaccination status of coworkers or what precautions the company is making to protect their health?

Further complicating the issue is what may happen in court as employees file lawsuits over being required to get the vaccine or sue because they caught the virus at work.

Legal guidance has suggested that companies can force employees to be vaccinated, but they also must offer the individual an opportunity to apply for a medical or religious exemption. Liability is another concern for companies requiring a return to office.

COVID-19 lawsuits will most likely be forced into arbitration unless plaintiffs can demonstrate gross negligence. Over a dozen states spent 2021 crafting legislation to limit employer liability as work transitions back to the office.

Planning for Anything

Getting employees back to the office feels like a moving target. Companies are itching to have their staff back to reclaim lost productivity and start utilizing the leased spaces they continued to pay for during quarantine.

The problem with this uncertainty is that companies need a fallback position. Committing to a hard target seemed reasonable a year ago but that was before two COVID-19 variants. Who knows how many other variants may pop up in 2022 or beyond?

The wise move is to hold on to remote or hybrid infrastructure developed over the last year. It offers options if another variant emerges, but it’s also what workers want.

According to Gartner, only 15% of employees want to return to the office full-time. Companies scrapping their remote options could end up losing more than double that amount.

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