Canadian Manufacturing

Companies revisiting their return to work plans amid omicron rise

Alphabet's Google and the U.S.'s second largest automaker Ford Motor Co. are among those once again delaying their return-to-office plans.

December 10, 2021  by Associated Press

Companies of all sizes are rethinking their plans to send workers back to the office as the new omicron variant adds another layer of uncertainty.

Alphabet’s Google and the U.S.’s second largest automaker Ford Motor Co. are among those once again delaying their return-to-office plans, while other businesses whose employees have already returned are considering adding extra precautions like requiring masks. Officials in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway and Sweden also have asked people in recent days to work from home if they can because of concerns about the variant.

Meta, formerly known as Facebook, and ridesharing company Lyft separately announced on Dec. 7 that they’re letting workers delay their return when offices fully reopen early next year. Meta still plans to open its headquarters at the end of January but will allow workers to delay their return as late as June. Lyft says it won’t require workers to come back to its offices for all of next year, though they will fully reopen as planned in February.

Janelle Gale, vice president of human resources for Meta, said the latest decision recognizes “some aren’t quite ready to come back.”

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The moves are the latest indication of how difficult it is for companies to set firm plans for their employees’ mandatory return as worries about a spike in new cases or new variants keep shifting deadlines. This fall, the delta variant spurred many big companies to postpone a mandatory return to early next year.

“A year and a half ago, we thought this would be for a very short time,” said Jeff Levin-Scherz, population health leader at Willis Towers Watson, a global advisory firm. “But the pandemic has thrown us many curves, and employers need to continue to be nimble.”

The firm’s survey of 543 employers with 5.2 million workers showed on average 34% of remote-capable employees remain remote, but that would decline to 27% by the first quarter of 2022. However, the survey was conducted before news of omicron surfaced.

The delayed plans are yet another blow to already struggling restaurants, bars, dry cleaners and other businesses that rely on office workers as patrons. Particularly hard-hit are those in downtown or midtown areas of cities like New York dominated by office buildings that remain largely empty.

The delays come even as U.S. health officials say early indications suggest omicron may be less dangerous than delta, which continues to fuel hospitalizations.

Lawrence Gostin, a public health expert at Georgetown University, doesn’t believe there’s enough scientific information on omicron to warrant companies delaying their return-to-office plans.

Ford said on Dec. 6 that it will delay plans for hybrid work at its Dearborn, Michigan, headquarters until March and plans to start a pilot phase for select employees in February. It had previously said it wouldn’t start the hybrid work model before January.

Ford said that the hybrid work model affects approximately 18,000 employees in North America. Hourly manufacturing employees returned to work in May 2020.