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Omicron Deals Another Blow To The Hard Return-To-Office Date

Omicron’s exceptional uncertainty and transmissibility have made the idea of firm return-to-office dates after the holidays even more ephemeral than it once seemed, as companies like Goldman Sachs and Apple have canceled parties and pushed back return mandates.

But what this latest development in the pandemic may usher in, eventually, is a more realistic view of what the battle of back-to-work really means, and what’s coming next. 

The omicron wave is testing many back-to-work plans.

“Our view is that [returning] to the office was less about health and safety and more about worker autonomy,” said Kastle Systems Chairman Mark Ein, whose firm has released a much-watched back-to-office index based on tracking the swipes of worker security badges.

“Employees have been positioning this as a health-and-safety issue, while managers and companies are seeing the same people who don’t want to come to the office doing all the other activities in their lives," Ein said. "A huge amount of workers want some autonomy to work from home all or some of the time. It’s unspoken but a big part of the discussion.” 

The speed with which the omicron variant has become the dominant strain of the coronavirus in the country, and spurred record outbreaks in two of the largest office markets in the country, New York City and Washington, D.C., has been alarming, particularly the rate of breakthrough infections.

But the variant’s arrival, which has thrown many corporate plans for returning to the office in limbo, if not on hold, has also underscored the questions companies need to keep asking themselves, and what’s truly at stake with their back-to-work strategies.

Should they react to every change during the pandemic and recovery, or begin developing more flexible, long-term plans? How will the great work collective experiment of working remotely ultimately resolve itself?  

“Do we need to respond to everything, or learn to live with it and consider it endemic?” Gartner Chief of Research Brian Kropp said. “That’s the basic question that’s being asked now.”

Kropp argued that businesses need to act more like schools, which have strict operating conditions and clearly defined metrics around when they will open or close, as opposed to what he called the “pick a date and hope for magic” plan some companies are using as a return-to-office strategy. 

Companies that had set firm return dates had been trying in vain to find the momentum to slowly bring workers back, said Cornell professor Bradford Bell, who focuses on human resources. Many have been forced to continually revise plans over time, frustrating employees. And those without clear dates have often created additional ambiguity. 

The key question about what hybrid means when workers do return remains: Will it be a requirement that all staff come in the same few days a week, or will workers truly have the ability to come and go as they please? The second scenario would have much more impact on real estate and office space requirements.

“Companies have made the mistake of waiting for a clarity that’s been elusive, which has compounded the frustration employees have experienced,” Bell said. “The best route is to share as much as you can and how you’re thinking, within a dynamic situation subject to change.”  

Dr. Deborah Birx, the former White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator, told Bisnow in an interview last week companies should share county-level coronavirus data in a regular newsletter, along with the corresponding mitigation measures the workplace has in place for workers.

While some analysts have ballpark figures for the kind of setback omicron might provide to back-to-work momentum — Bell said that based on the inquiries he’s receiving from firms, 20% decided to shut down offices last Wednesday, Dec. 15, and somewhere between 40% and 60% will be shut down by the end of the month— the scant data around the variant office impact hasn’t yet provided a clear picture of what setback we can expect. 

Office occupancy data has yet to show a steep omicron-influenced drop.

Keycard swipes in the 10 largest office markets in the U.S. barely budged in the first two weeks of December, when omicron started driving record cases in New York, dipping from the pandemic-era high of 40.6% on Dec. 1 to 39.5% on Dec. 15, according to Kastle.

Ein said he wasn’t surprised, since the omicron threat wasn’t really fully felt until the end of last week, and with Christmas and New Year’s approaching, it’ll be challenging to gauge office occupancy data until mid-January.

Foot traffic-tracking firm data has shown a steady trend over the year, slowly back toward normalcy, Vice President of Marketing Ethan Chernfosky said. A bounce back in traffic in November in New York highlighted how “Americans are ready to return to their workplace,” he said. 

He sees omicron slowing things down a bit, but the office world is in a far better situation than it was before. 

“What we’re hearing is people believe there’s value in being in the office compared to being at home,” he said. “It’s pretty clear there’s a setback. But what we’re really not talking about here, in terms of dynamics, is how good the job market is, how great it is to be a white-collar worker in demand, and how empowered the employee is right now.” 

In short, there’s growing demand to return to the workplace, but it’s by no means overwhelming, and workers, who expect more flexibility, still need to be coached back.

Building owners across New York City are trying to adapt to the fast-changing situation, Real Estate Board of New York Assistant Vice President of Policy Alexander Shapanka said. In addition to adapting to new regulations, including the indoor masking policy reinstated by Gov. Kathy Hochul and the vaccine mandate for private employers ordered by Mayor Bill de Blasio, property owners should be focused on making sure workers and others understand the safety of the office environment and what’s being done to guarantee it, he said. 

“How do we message this to our residents and tenants? What do we do to make sure they know what we’re doing to make the office a safe environment so people can return?” Shapanka said. “There are a lot of conversations we’re hearing from members about how we get people back into the office long-term. As we saw with delta, there will be a setback. But over the last 22 months, we’ve lived with this limbo, and companies will adjust their timelines accordingly.” 

Ultimately, Shapanka said, he believes real estate and office owners are in it for the long haul. 

“The recent run of billion-dollar deals for office towers in Manhattan tells you all you need to know about where things will be in three to four years,” he said.