How the omicron variant could impact return-to-office plans: ‘We’re dealing with rapidly moving facts’
New York, NY | December 1, 2021
As scientists learn more about the Covid-19 omicron variant and its arrival in the U.S. on Wednesday, business leaders are scrambling to figure out how it could impact their workplaces, including return-to-office plans. Just as the delta variant pushed Labor Day 2021 office reopenings back, the omicron variant could delay those plans further into 2022.
As a refresher, in response to the delta variant’s spread and within a few short weeks in July, several of the most influential tech companies delayed their return dates from September to October, while others pushed their timelines into 2022. In the months since, businesses have adjusted their reopenings countless times.
Employees, meanwhile, are more empowered than ever during the Great Resignation and have pushed back on the idea of returning in-person during a pandemic, if ever.
With omicron emerging as the new year approaches, office reopenings are yet again up in the air.
The good news is that the U.S. is already responding more quickly to the omicron variant due to what it learned facing the delta surge over the summer, says Dr. Denis Nash, a professor of epidemiology at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health.
This week, the CDC stepped up its Covid vaccine booster recommendation, saying all eligible adults should get the additional dose.
Plus, many of the enhanced workplace safety rules created in response to the delta wave are still in place today, such as vaccination requirements and regular testing, says Dr. David Levy, CEO of the preventive health company EHE.
‘We’re dealing with rapidly moving facts and conditions’
There are still a lot of unknowns about omicron as researchers study its transmissibility, severity and whether vaccinations will stand up to the variant. Scientists say we’re a few weeks out from having a more clear understanding of how the new strain impacts vaccinated and unvaccinated people.
Businesses will likely stay tightlipped about any reopening plans or changes to their workplace health and safety policies until they know more about the variant in the coming weeks, says Dr. Neal Mills, chief medical officer for the professional services firm Aon.
Companies may push reopening dates if scientists find the vaccines aren’t as effective at preventing severe illness caused by omicron. But Nash says he can “also envision a scenario where we learn in the coming weeks that vaccines remain protective against severe disease and death with the variant, which doesn’t set the timeline back.”
He says businesses should remain flexible, including not requiring people to work onsite if they don’t have to or if they have lingering concerns in the months ahead. Notably, the World Health Organization says that the delta variant is still circulating widely and is responsible for most infections around the world.
Whatever happens, leaders should communicate to employees that they understand uncertainty can cause anxiety, and they’re taking steps to stay up-to-date on the latest information before they officially announce any new Covid safety plans, Nash says.
It’s a good time for companies to reiterate the steps they’re taking to increase workplace safety and wellness, whether workers have been onsite for months or new people are returning for the first time in a while.
Companies should also clearly state their protocol for contact tracing or quarantining if someone tests positive at work. And workplaces might consider instating any necessary travel restrictions in areas with high transmission rates.
Levy urges employees to not get discouraged if the messaging from their leadership changes in the coming weeks: “People need to understand that in this business, the facts change, and it doesn’t mean the messenger lacks integrity, but we’re dealing with rapidly moving facts and conditions.”
While advising businesses on return-to-office plans over the summer, Mills says many employers were “shocked” at the high price of having workers regularly tested in order to return safely. “The costs were so staggering that many realized it was a luxury they simply couldn’t afford.”
But more affordable options could be coming to market. In the last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration updated its authorization policy to increase access to at-home Covid tests, which could give Americans access to 400 million more over-the-counter tests each month by early 2022.
As testing options become more accessible, more employers might require workers to regularly test themselves at home, at a health center near work, or at the workplace itself regardless of vaccination status in an effort to slow asymptomatic spread.
Return to offices could be pushed again, but we won’t have a clear idea for a few weeks
Just as the delta variant pushed Labor Day 2021 return-to-office plans back, the omicron variant could delay those plans further into 2022.
Companies may push reopening dates if scientists find the vaccines aren’t as effective at preventing severe illness caused by omicron, Nash says. On the other hand, “I can also envision a scenario where we learn in the coming weeks that vaccines remain protective against severe disease and death with the variant, which doesn’t set the timeline back,” he says.
Whatever happens, Nash says leaders should communicate to employees that they understand uncertainty can cause anxiety, but they’re taking steps to stay up-to-date on the latest information to guide any new Covid safety plans.