Home >Industry >Human Resource >The office is back. What if Covid has other plans?

The surge in Covid-19 cases is giving some companies and workers pause over looming return-to-office plans, even as a number of employers push ahead and reopen workplaces.

Many corporate bosses have been moving toward a significant return to corporate campuses after Labor Day, but a few prominent employers, including Apple Inc., are already pushing back dates. Others say they are feeling pressure to delay from employees who are voicing fresh concern about the spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant and swaths of unvaccinated people.

Apple this week told its workers that its back-to-the-office timeline would be delayed at least a month until October, according to a person familiar with the notice. The company also promised to give employees at least one month’s notice before recalling them to an office.

So far, Apple’s technology rivals haven’t followed suit, though a range of companies say they are watching the situation closely. Facebook Inc. hasn’t delayed its reopening plans for this fall, and a spokesman said that data, not a date, would guide the social-media giant’s decisions. Facebook has previously said it would likely open most of its U.S. offices at half capacity in September, and then fully in October.

“Expert guidelines state that vaccines are highly effective at preventing variants of Covid-19, including the Delta variant," a Facebook spokesman said, adding, “Our timelines to reopen our offices haven’t changed."

The Delta variant is the most contagious version of the virus to be identified. In weeks, it has become the most common strain in the U.S., accounting for 83% of analyzed infections. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a July 16 White House briefing that more than 97% of patients entering the hospital nationwide for Covid-19 were unvaccinated.

Many companies remain cautious. In late June, food-services and facilities-management company Sodexo updated its mask guidance, recommending that all staffers continue to wear a mask, even if vaccinated. Sodexo has kept many of its pandemic safeguards in place, such as physical barriers between tables in restaurants and the cafeterias it runs in corporate offices and on college campuses. Salad bars and self-serve buffets mostly remain closed.

“We’re erring on the side of: We want to protect public health," says Brigette Philpot, vice president of health, safety and environment for Sodexo North America.

Ms. Philpot and other executives monitor a color-coded map outlining infection rates in various markets where the company operates. Rising Covid-19 cases could mean more work for Sodexo. For instance, if more patients are admitted to hospitals, that could require Sodexo to hire additional staffers to make food or clean facilities, a challenge in an already tight labor market, Ms. Philpot said.

With variants spreading, Sodexo is taking count of how many gloves, N95 masks, gowns and personal protective equipment it has in stock for workers.

“What I really worry about most is our ability to be agile and nimble," Ms. Philpot said. “Is Delta the beginning of our never-ending journey to try to be effective with dealing with variants?"

Executives at Citigroup Inc. have said the company is letting data determine the bank’s return-to-work plans. The company hasn’t set an office return date, but said it expects to come back in September, although it will consider conditions at that time.

Even if companies aren’t adjusting plans, some are talking with workers about the Delta variant, aiming to address concerns. Terumo Blood and Cell Technologies, a medical device company that plans to bring 1,000 workers back to its office near Denver in August, said it would hold an all-hands session featuring some of the company’s doctors to explain the variant and answer questions.

Many of Terumo’s workers are vaccinated, and the company expects people to adopt hybrid work schedules where they are in the office two to three days a week, said Bon Lopez, senior vice president of human resources. If Colorado health officials or others add new restrictions that would affect in-office work, the company will comply and adjust its approach, he said.

Netflix Inc. Chairman and co-CEO Reed Hastings has made no secret about wanting to get the streaming giant’s 9,000 employees back in the office. “Not being able to get together in person, particularly internationally, is a pure negative," Mr. Hastings said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal last fall.

The streaming giant has stopped short of mandating a return, even though Mr. Hastings’s views haven’t softened and he wishes people would come back, people close to him said. People who work with Mr. Hastings note that he doesn’t have an office and enjoys engaging face-to-face with his employees while roaming the company’s campuses in Los Gatos, Calif. and Los Angeles. But, like many other companies, Netflix is trying to strike a balance that respects the desires of managers and staffers who want to gather in person, while still being sensitive to people who are concerned about catching the virus or have come to expect more control over how, when and where their work gets done.

Netflix is encouraging its workers to return to the office at least part time after Labor Day, but keeping it voluntary, people familiar with the company’s plans said. Ideally, Netflix’s top executives want people to work from the office Tuesday through Thursday, though the company’s culture—which prizes freedom and autonomy—makes it tough to issue a mandate. So that message is being conveyed by team managers, and no companywide memo has been sent, they said.

Many workers at other companies remain worried. Miranda Doerfler, a 30-year-old poker dealer, was furloughed from her job at a casino near Boston early in the pandemic and her unemployment benefits run out in September. Though she’s fully vaccinated and has been applying for other casino jobs, Ms. Doerfler said she has a weak immune system and is anxious about returning to a crowded indoor workplace.

“I’m still very nervous about the Delta variant," she said. “Even being vaccinated, I’m very nervous about getting something that seems very aggressive, like the variant. I already have breathing troubles. I think I would do very poorly if I got sick."

Ms. Doerfler is considering work at a logistics company, such as United Parcel Service Inc., because she feels her exposure to other people while delivering packages would be minimal. “It seems fairly hands off," she says. “That’s something that I could do."

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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