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Monday, January 24, 2022

As Omicron uncertainty mounts, return-to-office plans are revised

Government policies are shifting. For many businesses, the start of the year has brought a swift reversal of return-to-office plans as coronavirus case counts surge and events are cancelled.

By: New York Times |
January 4, 2022 10:21:08 am
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, attends a Covid-19 briefing with President Joe Biden at the White House in Washington on Monday, Dec. 27, 2021. (Cheriss May/The New York Times)

Written by Lauren Hirsch and Emma Goldberg

It was the first workday of 2022. Many people had hoped to be heading into work, some for the first time in nearly two years. Brooks Brothers had sent out a promotional email about how to “look great at the office.” But workers across the country remained home, with little idea when they might see their offices again.

With Covid case counts soaring, fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant, businesses are once again weighing when to reopen and what steps they need to take to do so safely.

In recent days, Jefferies, Goldman Sachs, Chevron and many more employers have delayed or changed their January return-to-office plans. Starbucks, Delta Air Lines and BlackRock have amended their Covid safety protocols, responding to shifting guidance from public health authorities.

At Jefferies, the investment bank, a memo to the staff Monday morning from Rich Handler, the CEO, and Brian Friedman, the president, announced a new plan: “Realistically, we do not foresee us all having a safe opportunity to be together in our offices until at least Monday, January 31st.”

The executives added a dose of optimism: “While nobody knows for sure, we believe (and fervently hope) this could be the last truly challenging period of this pandemic.”

The memo reflected a view, shared by some business leaders, that the spread of the omicron variant — which is more infectious but also milder, especially for the vaccinated — could usher in the endemic phase of the pandemic, and with it a wave of office reopenings that might actually be executed.

Other companies are devising new ways to keep their workplaces open.

Starbucks announced Monday that it would reduce the number of days that vaccinated, asymptomatic workers who test positive must isolate, to five days from 10, following the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The company also said U.S. workers would have to be fully vaccinated by Feb. 9 or submit to weekly testing, in compliance with a Biden administration vaccine rule for large employers.

A spokesperson for Starbucks said the company gave store and district managers some leeway to decide when specific locations need to make adjustments, like opening for drive-thru orders only. “Our retail leaders are empowered to modify operations locally,” said Reggie Borges, the company spokesperson. “They’re able to make those adjustments on the fly.”

CNN, which had earlier planned a January return for some employees, confirmed to its staff in an email Sunday that its offices would remain closed except to “those who absolutely need to be there.”

Goldman Sachs told US employees Sunday to work from home until Jan. 18. The investment bank, which called most of its staff back to the office in June, had announced just last week that it would increase its vaccination and testing requirements, even as its Wall Street rivals were returning to remote work.

More changes could be coming soon as guidance from public health authorities continues to shift and the administration pushes to keep the economy running.

Dr. Anthony Fauci said Sunday that the CDC was considering recommending that Americans test negative for the coronavirus before leaving isolation, updating a policy change it made just last month. For companies like Delta, that might mean once again altering protocols. For others, that may invite an intense set of negotiations with unions.

On Friday, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments over the legality of the Biden administration’s mandate for large employers to require vaccinations or weekly testing. Meanwhile, the very meaning of “fully vaccinated” may soon change.

Marcia St. Hilaire-Finn, who runs Bright Start Early Care and Preschool in Washington, D.C., said she recently changed her coronavirus polices and approach, responding to both news about omicron and new CDC guidance. Previously, if an employee or child tested positive, she closed their classroom for 10 days. Now she requires vaccinated asymptomatic employees with Covid to isolate for just five days, though classroom closures last longer because the children are not vaccinated.

Over the holidays, St. Hilaire-Finn offered a $100 bonus to any employee who got a booster shot. She estimates that every staff member will have received a booster shot by the end of this week.

“At this point, we’re leaning more towards being open than closed,” she said.

George Colony, the CEO of Forrester Research, a consulting firm in Boston, said last month that he was once again pushing back his company’s office return.

“We expected to open our US offices in early January,” he said. “That timetable is not going to happen. We are going to stay remote.”

Colony said he was preparing for some Forrester employees to be out of commission in the weeks ahead. “I think many of us are going to get sick here in the next few months,” he said. “I expect more people will be absent, more people will be sick.”

When to bring recovered workers back will be a new challenge.

If the CDC recommends that infected workers test negative before returning to work — as many scientists have urged it to do — companies will have to figure out how to supply in-demand tests to employees. While big companies have been buying tests in bulk, smaller employers often do not have that capacity. Deciding whom to prioritize for tests, who pays for them and how to verify the results will bedevil boardrooms in the coming months.

Some firms have already begun to incorporate testing into their plans. BlackRock, the asset management firm, told its roughly 7,600 US employees before the holidays that it was “encouraging flexibility” and requiring those who continue to go into the office to be tested weekly. Last week, it announced it would extend that policy through Jan. 28.

Whether deciding when to open offices or setting policies for isolation, employers are grappling with a key question: How much risk of exposure and spread are they and their workers willing to tolerate? They do not all agree.

This week, Dr. Brian Monahan, the attending physician for Congress, advised all congressional offices, committees and agencies to maximize remote work and reduce in-person meetings as much as possible, though this is a recommendation.

“While some view the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus disease as ‘endemic,’ the ‘new normal,’ and ‘inevitable,’ these views are premature,” Monahan wrote in a memo reviewed by The New York Times. “The entire community must continue to take every measure to suppress the rapid spread of this disease.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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