Pandemic redux: No, your workers aren’t coming back to the office

Have you seen the latest coronavirus Delta variant numbers? That rise in cases means one thing for sure: Your employees aren’t returning to their cubicles anytime soon.

Listen, I know you want to turn the clock back. I want to turn the clock back, too. We all want to turn the clock back and change the world so that Covid-19 never came along. We can’t do it — nor can we pretend anymore that we’re over the coronavirus pandemic. We’re not. And that means work isn’t going back to “normal”— whatever normal means now — either.

We could see this coming. Too many Americans have not yet been vaccinated (and too many people outside the United States can’t even get the vaccine). What really drove this home for me was when my fellow journalist Violet Blue, who’s been covering the coronavirus like paint, shared that the virus in San Francisco, as of mid-July 2021, has an R rating of 1.66. That’s not Missouri, not Alabama, not the other hotbeds of virus disbelief — it’s the San Francisco Bay area.

The R rating indicates how infectious a disease is. Specifically, R is the number of people that one infected person will pass a virus to on average. If it’s lower than 1, the disease is declining. Yay, us! If it’s higher than 1, we’re in trouble.

What that means is companies large and small that had hoped to go back to business as usual, with business lunches, everyone back in an office, and in-person sales meetings, may have to shelve (or seriously modify) those plans.

Some companies, such as banking giant J.P. Morgan, are actually having contests to see who can have the most in-person meetings with clients. Others, such as Amazon, are insisting that all employees will be back at the office real soon. Still others get it:  Apple, for example, has pushed back its office re-opening to October at the earliest.

I doubt very much they, or anyone else, will make it back to cubicle land that soon. That’s true whether your company has 50 employees or 5,000.

I’ve written a lot about how workers can be successful working from home; why letting your employees work from home makes sense; and, frankly, how many staffers simply won’t be returning — even if you demand they do. But what’s happening now is different. Mother Nature is not so gently reminding us that we can’t ignore viruses.

The Delta variant, which now accounts for 83% of Covid-19 infections, is far more infectious than any variant that’s come before. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently announced that Covid-19 fatalities have increased by nearly 48%. And, according to former White House Covid-19 adviser Andy Slavitt, “98, 99-plus percent of people that are being hospitalized and dying with COVID have not been vaccinated?”

Like it or not, it’s time to pull back on reopening offices and put the masks back on.

It’s also time for companies to remain nimble, to look for different ways to ride out this particular variant. It’s not 2020 again. We know now the basics of home-office setups. This year’s task is to get smarter about remote work.

How do you do that? Here’s a hint: Windows 11 is not the big Windows news of this year, and inexpensive Chromebooks aren't just for shops that have bought into Google Workspace. (I’ll dive into the details next week on how to manage in a world where we may all be working at home for who knows how long.)

In the meantime, what ticks me off is that this was largely preventable. Even though we have ample access to safe, effective vaccines, only 56% of those ages 12 and up in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

As a business leader, you can still help us get where we need go. You can continue to support working from home, you can often insist that your workers get their vaccinations, and you can require employees who must be on-site to distance themselves and continue or return to wearing masks. If you haven’t grappled with these issues, now is the time to decide how to proceed. These are not one-size-fits-all decisions; what’s good for the mom-and-pop shop down the street might not work for the up-and-coming startup across town.

But “business as usual” isn’t the answer, and it won’t be in 2021. The only saving grace is that having gone through this before, we’re much better prepared to keep the lights on, the data flowing, workers connected, and sales coming in.

We did it before. We’ll have to do it again.

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