If Masks Come Off, Will Workers Come In?

States and firms are dropping mask mandates, but a significant number of workers may find the new surroundings uncomfortable. 

On the surface, it’s great news for companies around the country.

With the Omicron variant surge now receding in many parts of the United States, multiple states and municipalities are dropping their mask mandates. Private organizations are following suit, including Wall Street banks and other New York City-based employers. It’s a sign to companies that more people can return to the office and that office life can more closely resemble what it was in 2019. “People are feeling that we can live with this, and there’s more of a shift toward personal responsibility in an endemic,” says Brian Bloom, Korn Ferry’s vice president of global benefits.

But aa significant number of employees, even those who want to go to the office, don’t feel the same. Fifty-two percent of working Americans say that the Omicron variant has increased their anxiety about in-person working, according to a recent survey conducted by Eagle Hill Consulting. Whether or not they have to wear a mask, it seems, isn’t making a difference in this sentiment. In another poll, this one from Morning Consult, 55% of employees currently working remotely said they would consider quitting if they were asked to return to the office before they felt safe.

Some companies had dropped mask requirements in November, only to bring them back when the Omicron variant spread through the country. Federal health officials still require that certain groups of employees wear masks—public transport workers and healthcare employees, for example. The government also recommends that anyone, vaccinated or not, wear a mask in congested indoor areas.

Instead of trying to make everyone feel comfortable about wearing or not wearing a mask, some companies plan to keep letting employees work remotely full time for now. “Many companies are just kicking the can down the road,” says George Atkinson, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and member of the firm’s Human Resources Center of Expertise. Atkinson says many firms are still focused on broader issues—everything from fixing supply-chain snags to flexible work scheduling.

Rather than debating about masks, experts say, companies might make employees who want to work in person feel safer by mandating that anyone working at the office must be vaccinated. “Not wearing a mask if you are fully vaccinated is not that much of an issue,” says Ron Porter, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and member of the firm’s Human Resources Center of Expertise. Companies could then support an anxious employee’s decision to wear a mask as an added safety measure.

Of course, mandating vaccines has been another issue. Another option is to keep any office use voluntary. Just make sure your firm keeps abreast and follows state and local guidelines, Bloom says.