Personal Finance

Here’s where return-to-office plans stand now

Key Points
  • A recent surge in Covid-19 cases due to the delta variant has caused some employers to delay their return-to-work plans.
  • It is likely more will follow suit.
  • But the ability to work remotely may not last forever. Eventually, it will be beneficial for everyone to go back to the office, experts say.
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The Week That Was: Return-to-office plans stall

In just a few weeks, many U.S.-based companies planned to be back in the office, at least part of the time.

But a recent surge in Covid-19 cases due to the delta variant has caused some employers, including AppleAlphabet, Uber and Lyft, to delay those return-to-office dates.

And increasingly, employees are less willing to go back amid the ongoing pandemic.

"This is an unprecedented, once-in-a-century public health emergency, and things are, unfortunately, in flux," said Bob Bollinger, a professor of infectious diseases at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and inventor of the emocha Health app.

"We must deal with the data as it comes in and make adjustments as needed."

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Legally, if an employee has a medical issue, they have a right to request a reasonable accommodation, which may be to stay home, according to David Barron, a labor and employment attorney at the law firm Cozen O'Connor.

"It's increasingly problematic if the data shows that even if you are vaccinated, you can still get sick," he said. "A lot of employers thought they had solved that problem, but we are headed back to the start."

For now, many companies are "in a wait-and-see mode," Barron said, although it is likely more will consider delaying their return-to-office plans.

In a survey of more than 350 CEOs and human resources and finance leaders in June, 74% said they plan to have employees back in the office by the fall of this year, according to staffing firm LaSalle Network.

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Companies are watching delta variant data, staying flexible: Expert

Yet as the dates get closer, 39% of firms anticipate conflict between staff and executives, LaSalle Network found, up from 34% when the same survey was conducted in March.    

"Things that work well for the employees don't necessarily work well for the employer," said Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of the upcoming book "The Future of the Office."

"What employees want is choice and that is the most difficult thing for employers to swallow."

Going forward, plans may vary by region and industry, according to Bollinger.

"In places where the new cases and hospitalizations are relatively low, you may see more businesses willing to come back into the office," he said. "In places where the rates are high, there will be hesitancy."

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New guidelines for vaccination rolled out, companies rethink the return to work

Further, once people do start commuting again, staying home will be more difficult for those who chose to remain remote, Wharton's Cappelli said. "Assuming work from home is going to work like it did during the pandemic is a mistake."

"Are we still going to think it's cute that your dog is barking on the Zoom call?"

There will be less flexibility when it comes to juggling child care and other responsibilities, Cappelli said, and fewer career opportunities, especially if other co-workers are in the office.

In-person work is helpful for personal interaction and company collaboration, which can be hindered in a virtual world, many experts say.

It's nearly impossible to cultivate relationships over ZoomSlack or Microsoft Teams, and the same goes for connecting with a mentor — something that has proven to be especially beneficial over the course a career

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