Return to the Office—Still On?

Surging COVID-19 cases aren’t changing many back-to-office plans. But return rates remain low.

Over the past 18 months, companies have rewritten their return-to-office plans seemingly every time the number of COVID-19 infections spiked. It appeared another rewrite might be coming, with the number of infections surging in more than 30 states.

But while a handful of firms have hit the delay button, most organizations are taking a decidedly firmer approach, standing pat with their latest return plans. They certainly have a ways to go: the latest figures show only about 35% of workers have come back, the same as in the summer. “Companies are setting their policy and sticking to it,” says Bradford Frank, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Technology practice.

Nationally, case levels remain well below those in early September, when infections peaked due to the delta variant. However, conditions have begun to worsen again. More than 90,000 cases are being reported each day across the country, with more than 30 states seeing sustained jumps in infections.

To some degree, organizations had anticipated a resurgence as the months turned colder, says Ron Porter, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and member of the firm’s Global Human Resources Center of Expertise. “Most companies have been pretty deliberate,” he says, having either committed to either reopening their offices by now or continuing to wait. Indeed, several leaders saw how some firms that required employees to return to the workplace had to backtrack on those plans because of the extreme contagiousness of the COVID-19 delta variant. Organizations would rather not have to rewrite plans again.

Experts say the bigger question for many companies revolves around requiring employee vaccinations. While the focus has been on some large organizations requiring their workers to get vaccinated, many leaders have been leery of imposing a mandate for fear of alienating employees who, for a variety of reasons, are unwilling to get the vaccine. “Nobody wants to upset people needlessly. It’s a very delicate balance,” says David Vied, global sector leader of Korn Ferry’s Medical Devices and Diagnostics practice.

Some leaders hoped that the government had taken the decision out of their hands when the White House announced that firms with more than 100 employees would have to require their workers to be vaccinated by January or undergo at least weekly COVID-19 testing. But that mandate is tied up in a court battle.

So far, courts have upheld employer vaccination mandates as long as they offer exemptions for religious or medical reasons. Still, imposing a mandate brings up many issues that many organizations, regardless of size, would rather avoid, such as systematically tracking employees’  health status. Vied says some firms would rather give employees a choice. People who want to work at the office mask-free must either be vaccinated or submit to daily COVID tests that the employees themselves have to pay for.