Just as many U.S.-based organizations started to ramp up their return-to-office plans this summer, the COVID-19 began to surge due to the Delta variant. According to Bloomberg, cases and hospitalizations are now at their highest since February 2021, and 38 states have transmission levels considered “high” by the CDC, meaning they have at least 100 cases per 100,000 residents or have positivity rates of at least 10 percent.
This new rise in COVID-19 cases is causing concern among employees who are being asked to return to their physical workspaces, according to a new Gartner poll of 70 HR leaders from around the world conducted on July 28. Nearly 70 percent of respondents reported that their employees are worried about getting infected by an unvaccinated colleague, while nearly 25 percent report having employees who completely refuse to return to the workplace.
What does that mean for the back-to-office plans? According to the poll, workplace reopenings are slowing and, in some cases, being put on pause — a trend that can be seen across the corporate world. On Aug. 11, for example, NBCUniversal announced that it had pushed the return-to-the- office date to mid-October. According to the poll, one in 10 companies that planned to reopen their offices in the third quarter of 2021 have delayed their reopening date to the fourth quarter, and among organizations that have already reopened, 28 percent have decreased the number of people allowed in the office. Ultimately, Gartner suggested that the data means it is important to consider employees’ anxieties when following through with back-to-office plans.
“As was the case from the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the decisions you make now will define, perhaps forever, how employees, customers, and prospective talent perceive your company,” wrote Gartner contributor Brian Kropp in response to the poll results. “Your focus must be on employee health, welfare, and safety.” This requires, Kropp wrote, flexibility and empathy, and a willingness to reevaluate return-to-office plans as the situation around the pandemic continues to change. “It is helpful to keep taking a pulse,” Kropp wrote, “on employee sentiment.”
Casey Gale is associate editor at Convene.