How return-to-work plans are evolving due to the Delta variant

Employers’ mask guidance and vaccine strategy changed quickly as the variant spread rapidly. What does it mean for return-to-workplace plans?
By: | August 17, 2021

Like many employers, software company Paylocity had moved its employees remote due to COVID-19 early last year. Some of its employees have returned to the office have over the past several months, and with COVID-19 cases on the decline and the country moving toward a new normal, the company was planning to officially reopen its offices for its workers after Labor Day.

But the Delta variant—the highly contagious COVID strand that is surging in much of the country—is changing those plans.

Cheryl Johnson, CHRO for Paylocity

“We have now put a pause on that and said, ‘Hey, let’s put it out until October and keep an eye on what’s going on,’ ” says the firm’s CHRO, Cheryl Johnson. “The Delta variant is something myself and the senior leaders are keeping a very, very close eye on.”

Paylocity is among the scores of employers that have reexamined and changed their return-to-office plans in recent weeks. After widely embracing remote work for well over a year, a number of organizations had planned for a return to the office in September. Now those plans are being put off, at least by companies that can continue with remote workers. Twitter made the decision to close its re-opened offices in New York and San Francisco, as well as to pause future office re-openings. Facebook announced it will delay its plan to return U.S. employees to their office until January 2022. Many others, including Apple and Google, delayed their return dates from September to October.

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“As Delta variant cases rise, some businesses that can operate with remote employees are delaying return-to-work plans based on guidance from the CDC and local health officials,” says Traci Fiatte, CEO, professional and staffing at Randstad USA.

The change comes in the midst of other alterations happening rapidly because of the COVID surge: After the CDC reversed its mask guidance—now recommending wearing them in most indoor places—most employers are mandating mask-wearing in offices after allowing vaccinated workers to shed them in previous months. And more employers are getting more aggressive about their vaccination push, with employers like Tyson Foods, Microsoft, United Airlines, IBM and more now requiring inoculation against COVID-19 for their workers.

Related: These employers are requiring COVID-19 vaccines

These changes of plans—including pushing back a return to the office—are not only the safest strategy in keeping employees healthy they also are the smartest one to retain workers, experts say.

Recent research show employees—even vaccinated ones—are growing fearful of the Delta variant, with many saying their biggest concern about returning to the office is a fear of getting sick. Not listening to employee concerns, and neglecting health and safety, is a surefire way to lose workers, especially in a hot talent market where companies are struggling to keep and hire workers.

“COVID safety is especially important given today’s tight talent market,” Fiatte says. She notes that a recent study from software firm Nulab finds that workers who felt unsafe at their jobs due to COVID were three times more likely to look for another opportunity.

Becky Cantieri is chief people officer at Momentive.

The Delta variant is further proof that COVID-19 will continue to throw a wrench in employer plans—and that company leaders need to continue to be flexible in handling complications. Becky Cantieri, chief people officer of tech firm Momentive, recently told HRE that the company’s COVID-19 strategy has been to be flexible and stay iterative based on the status of the pandemic. With return-to-office plans, it continues to be “super thoughtful and very planful,” she says. “We’re planning, and planning a plan B, just so we’re ready and adaptable and agile based on how things evolve.”

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Engaging with employees and finding out what they want and need to feel safe is key for employer success—as is continued open dialogue, Fiatte says.

“Top companies are embracing agility when developing return-to-work plans in the midst of changing health guidelines. Companies should consider surveying employees to determine their priorities and comfort levels about in-person work,” she says. “Leaders should also frequently communicate return-to-work plans to provide employees with the most up-to-date information.”

Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver. She can be reached at kmayer@lrp.com.

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