The Delta Variant’s Impact on Back-to-Office Plans — And What It Means for Workers

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In August, the Wall Street Journal reported that corporate leaders across the country were scrambling to reschedule, replan and reassess the logic in reopening their offices this fall. Although they had been confident that autumn would bring a return to on-site work, the Delta variant had other plans. Now, once again, office managers are joining school administrators in stumbling out of summer into yet another season of uncertainty.

Read: GDP Report Shows Economic Recovery Moving Along, but Delta Variant Fears Linger
See: More Americans Are Moving Back to Pre-Pandemic Life — How Will It Affect Spending?

Another Month, Another Surprise From the Virus

Even many of the experts who had warned about the likelihood of mutations and new strains were startled by the speed and ferocity of the virus’s latest incarnation. 

“The Delta variant of COVID-19 is already spreading faster than expected, and there’s no clear end in sight,” said Jordan Bishop, founder and CEO of the finance site Yore Oyster. As a business owner who serves as his company’s human resources manager, he knows the issue well. 

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“It seems like businesses that were planning to reopen their offices by fall of 2021 have been resetting them for winter 2021,” Bishop said. “They’ve all delayed it because of these recent developments with the virus since no one knows how contagious or deadly it really is.”

Before they commit one way or the other, managers should first ask what — if anything — is to be gained by returning to the office at this critical moment.

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“The move to open is just unnecessary at a time when things are still changing and developing,” said Kathy Bennett, CEO and founder of Bennett Packaging Company. “Unless businesses have to, investing in safety precautions that might be changed with the new variant seems a waste of money, and keeping employees at home makes much more sense logistically and financially. Of course, there will be industries and parts of businesses that require on-site working, but for those that this doesn’t apply to, then now doesn’t seem the right time for upheaval if it is not needed.”

As Always, the Pain Will Not Be Distributed Equally

For businesses, the decision to open or not will have a lot to do with where they’re located. Employers in Delta hotspots face different choices than those in areas that have so far been spared. It also, of course, depends on what they do.

“Where I think we will see the real difference is in the industries,” Bennett said. “Hospitality, travel, service, and retail are unlikely to make any changes unless commanded to do so because this essentially means seriously depleted or zero income for them.” 

For the individual worker, the false starts and all the back and forth can be stressful, upending and burnout-inducing — unless, of course, they’re already telecommuting. 

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“People who work remotely or in hybrid positions will, for the most part, be unaffected by this development,” Bishop said. “It will only mean more time spent at home. Remote and hybrid teams can still use all their existing tools to stay connected with one another and perform their jobs. However, for retail businesses that need in-person personnel, this could lead to more layoffs and unemployment.” 

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But what would opening mean financially for workers who had gotten used to pocketing the money they weren’t spending on commuting? 

“I think you could argue that the savings vs. expenses of remote working do eventually cancel each other out,” Bennett said. “Whereas you may be saving on your commute, it is likely you will be receiving a slightly higher electric bill for the extra time spent at home. The money saved eating out at lunch will just be spent on having extra food at home instead. I’m not sure working remotely actually means you save money.”

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For Offices That Jumped the Gun, Tough Choices Lie Ahead

Post-vaccine optimism led many companies to open their offices and move fully remote workers to hybrid or even full-time status throughout the summer — a move that hindsight has revealed as premature in many cases. 

“Businesses already back in the office will face a significant choice about how to proceed,” Bennett said. “If they decide to stay in-office then it will be important for businesses to enforce social distancing measures where possible, even if it is not required by the current government guidelines. This will just help to keep employees safe and will mean less chance of the virus spreading far if somebody does come down with COVID.”

More: 4 Valid Reasons Your Company Won’t Let You Work From Home Indefinitely
See: How To Protect Yourself When You Return to Your Office

Even if they already opened, however, they don’t necessarily have to stay the course.

Alternatively, businesses could return to remote working if they feel this is the safest option,” Bennett said. “This could be another upheaval for an already tired team, though, and I think it is important to discuss any possible decisions with the employees and be as transparent as possible as early as possible about what you are thinking.” 

In reality, however, closing and reopening offices are expensive processes that squander both time and resources. Many businesses simply can’t keep doing it in perpetuity. 

“This sudden surge of the Delta variant means that businesses that had opened or been preparing to reopen will have to pack their things again and delay reopenings, possibly until late fall or winter of 2021,” Bishop said. “It’s sad to see that people were more than ready to start working again, only to have to close again. For businesses that opened because they needed the revenue, this surge could be the final straw economically before filing for bankruptcy.”

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Last updated: Sept. 2, 2021

About the Author

Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street's investment community in New York City.

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