Delta Variant Hasn’t Yet Changed Many Return-to-Office Plans

Even as many tech companies announce delays to their return-to-office dates in the face of the Delta variant, it appears that most companies’ plans have not yet changed, according to several weeks of surveys by Morning Consult.

Every week for three weeks, Morning Consult asked a nationally representative panel of 1,000 adult American workers when their employer was planning to have them return to their workplace either full time or part time. The first survey began on July 16 and ended last Thursday.

The most recent one found that most workers were already in the office. Eight percent of workers said that their companies had adopted a permanent work-from-home policy. And 7 percent said their companies had not yet announced a policy.

Among the remaining workers — people working from home, but planning to return eventually, either part time or full time — 19 percent said that they would be back by September.

Only 2 percent of those surveyed said their return-to-office date was in October. The number of people who indicated their return date was in November and December rounds to zero. And only 1 percent said that it was in 2022.

“September is still a jumping-off point for workers coming back to work,” said John Leer, economist at Morning Consult. “The anxieties we’re seeing have not yet trickled down to the broader workplace.”

The survey was not able to break out workers by industry, but it does have information on education. Splitting the survey by education shows that as educational attainment increases, there’s a significant decline in the share of workers who are in the office. Yet even among workers with graduate degrees, return dates are still concentrated in August and September.

These results reflect the company’s policies as far as the workers are aware, but they do not reveal what company leaders are thinking. That distinction is important, according to Nicholas Bloom, an economist at Stanford University who has been closely studying return-to-office plans. “If I were the C.E.O. and was not sure about Labor Day return, I would keep the cards close to my chest for maybe another week or so to see how things pan out,” he said.

That’s because it’s costly to change company policy on a return-to-office date, and it’s even costlier if the return to the office turns out to have been too soon.

Devising a return-to-office policy is hard. It requires executives to watch the development of the virus, monitor the attitudes of their workers and sort through thorny legal and personnel issues regarding the virus, said Tsedal Neeley, a Harvard Business School professor who studies remote work.

“What companies are grappling with is the question of: Do you mandate vaccines? Is it legal? If you mandate it, how do you do it? If you don’t, how will you ensure everyone feels psychologically and physically safe?” Professor Neeley said.

For Professor Bloom, the barometer for where office work will go is tech: “As with everything around work-from-home in this pandemic, tech has led first. They were first to move to hybrid, first to delay the return to the office last year, first to mandate vaccines this year and likely first to delay return until next year.”

But not every company can afford the same flexibility that tech companies enjoy. For some, delaying may feel more costly.

Kathryn Wylde, who is president of the Partnership for New York City and has spoken to over 30 companies with offices in New York, said that at the moment, all of them were just figuring out what worked for them individually. “It’s a mess,” she said. “Everybody is making their own decisions. And I think everyone is struggling.”

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