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How the Return To Office Is Evolving Amid New Concerns

by Adrian Miller on September 28, 2021
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Just as many people were settling into a “new normal” of hybrid work and relaxed restrictions after 18 months, companies are re-evaluating their return-to-office plans amid rising concerns over new strains of the coronavirus.

The CDC reports that the COVID-19 delta variant now makes up more than 99% of COVID cases and is more contagious than other common viruses, such as the flu and chicken pox. It’s also twice as contagious as earlier versions of the virus.

The spread of the delta variant is causing business leaders worldwide to push back timelines for bringing employees back to the office or implement new workplace safety protocols.  

Recommended: support a safe return to the office with these resources.

How are return-to-office plans changing?

This summer, tech companies including Google and Apple pushed back their return to office dates from September to October, while rideshare services such as Lyft are pushing back their dates into 2022.  Twitter previously reopened its headquarters in New York and San Francisco at 50% capacity for vaccinated employees who wanted to return to the office, but closed them again in July and paused any future reopenings.

The Partnership for New York City (PFNYC) surveyed major employers in August and found employers estimate 41% of their office workers will return by the end of September. That’s a significant decrease from estimates in a similar PFNYC study in May, which estimated 62% of employees would return to the office by the end of September. The New York City companies surveyed anticipate 76% of employees will return to the office by January 2022.

While 83% of U.S. employers who responded to a PwC survey earlier this year report the extended period of remote work has been successful, 95% believe employees should return to the office at some point to maintain a strong company culture.

Sixty-eight percent said they believe employees should be in the office three or more days per week.

Many employees agree they want to spend at least part of their time in the office, but 55% said they would prefer to be remote at least three days a week.

Return to office survey(Source: PwC)

The least experienced employees were most likely to want to return to work in person with more seasoned managers and colleagues. Thirty-four percent of employees with less than five years of experience reported they felt less productive working remotely.

The extended work-from-home period is also taking a toll on employees’ mental health, as more people experience loneliness and burnout.

In the UK, employers are enticing people to come back to the office with social events and free food, while others are requiring them to return for a minimum number of days each week.

The number of people commuting has increased, and consulting firms including Deloitte and PwC are relaxing social distancing and mask mandates.

The commercial real estate industry and other related industries are also feeling the effects of a delayed return-to-office.

Manhattan’s available office space square footage is at 22 million, the highest it’s been since 2003. Long-term planning is on the back burner for now, while short-term leasing and flexible space options are succeeding.

CBRE Global Head of Occupier Research Julie Whelan said the No. 1 challenge for commercial real estate tenants is not having strong occupancy in their office space.  

In a recent podcast about global real estate recovery beyond 2021, Whelan estimated the average person is going to spend 24% less time in the office moving forward, but stressed that does not mean there will be 24% less demand for space. Instead, she said employers need to solve for peak office demand and design their office space to meet employees’ current needs.

“Our best guess is that we are probably going to have around a 9% space reduction per new worker added to the market,” Whelan said. “But we are also in a hot economic environment and all the job growth that's going to be added is going to equate to more office demand. And so our best guess is that in 2025, when we reach that full recovery that we hope we're going to see in the office market, that we are going to be back to the same occupancy levels in real estate that we were pre pandemic.”

How will vaccine mandates impact the return to the office?

In the United States, President Joe Biden announced a plan directing the U.S. Labor Department to require all businesses with 100 or more employees to ensure their workers are either vaccinated or tested once per week. Companies could face thousands of dollars in fines per employee for non-compliance. This plan is estimated to affect more than 100 million American employees.

Employers will need to consider how they will enforce the vaccine mandate in their return-to-office plans. They will need to ask for proof of vaccination as part of their new visitor management policy and determine how they will manage COVID-19 testing for employees who are not vaccinated.

Some companies already required vaccines as part of their return-to-office safety protocols.

Once offices reopen, Google's returning employees will be required to show proof of vaccination. Other companies that already required vaccinations to return to the office include McDonald’s (for corporate employees), Microsoft, Netflix, and Disney.

Some airlines have been incentivizing employees to obtain vaccines, promising additional pay, vacation time, or other benefits, while others have been mandating vaccines.

Beginning in November, Delta Airlines will charge an additional $200 health insurance surcharge for unvaccinated employees. They will also require regular COVID-19 testing and limit COVID-19 pay protection to vaccinated employees experiencing breakthrough cases. They also require new hires to be vaccinated.

Safer workplace solutions

United Airlines announced in August that all employees will need to be vaccinated and upload proof of vaccination to a company website this fall, or be placed on unpaid leave beginning Oct. 2  — a policy that led to a group of employees filing a class-action lawsuit against the airline.

In August, a Qualtrics study revealed that 44% of employees would consider quitting their jobs if they were required to get vaccinated. On the flip side, approximately 38% of workers said they would consider leaving an employer who did not develop a vaccine mandate.

The employee response to vaccine mandates seems to vary by generation. Employees who said they would consider leaving their company if it did not require a vaccine included:

  • 50% of Gen-Z employees
  • 40% of Millennial employees
  • 36% of Gen-X employees
  • 33% of Baby Boomers

It’s clear employers everywhere face difficult choices as they determine how and when to return to the office.

How can employers create safer workplaces?

While factors outside of their control continue to change, employers do have control over how they respond.

Whether they are still finalizing their return-to-office plans or their workplaces have been open for months, workplace leaders need to consider several important factors, including:

  • How they will comply with any applicable government requirements, including checking vaccination status and managing COVID testing
  • How they will monitor COVID-19 cases in their area and make adjustments as needed, such as requiring masks even for employees who are fully vaccinated
  • Whether they need to implement a visitor management system
  • How they will maintain appropriate social distancing
  • How they will implement contact tracing without violating privacy laws
  • How they will respond if an employee tests positive for COVID-19
  • How they will manage additional cleaning and sanitization
  • How they will communicate their return-to-office plans to employees

Addressing these concerns requires a combination of planning, implementing the right technology, and being prepared to adjust as conditions change.

 iOFFICE and SpaceIQ have the solutions to plan a safe return-to-office, including space management software and our Space-Right planning feature to help you quickly reconfigure spaces for safety.

Our solutions also help you screen visitors according to new safety standards, monitor occupancy, manage cleaning, and communicate updates to employees.

For more tips on how to manage a safe return to the office, download our guide.

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