Leadership   //   December 7, 2021

‘Assume this is COVID 2.0’: Omicron variant puts post-holiday return to office in doubt

With Google announcing that employees won’t be required to come back to the office in January as planned, other employers are beginning to follow suit as Omicron picks up steam.

Companies that were set to reopen after the holidays and already struggling with pushback among some employees about the return to the office and their vaccination policies, now face another obstacle in the newly discovered coronavirus variant, which first surfaced in South Africa last month and is spreading quickly. In the U.S., those infected with the variant have now been documented across 16 states, while 160 cases had been reported in Britain as of this past weekend.

Aside from Google, companies like Hartford Financial Services Group have also put the brakes on their return plans because of Omicron. Meanwhile, other large employers like business insurance firm Travelers are taking a wait-and-see stance as they await federal and state guidance. Wall Street firms and airlines are also among those companies watching and waiting

For its part, Nashville-based Raven Public Relations, which works with creative advertising agencies like GSD&M and Mother New York, is not taking any chances with the variant, pushing its own office return to late January at the earliest, according to co-founder Matt Van Hoven — “unless Omicron burns out quickly, which seems unlikely with the holiday and folks traveling,” he added.

The creative agency MKG, which has done work for Cartier and Delta Air Lines, had planned for a mandatory return to its New York office in early December, but with the arrival of Omicron and the city’s recommendation on masking indoors, the firm shifted from a mandate to a voluntary return. (Return plans for its Los Angeles office, currently voluntary, remain in flux.) It continues to require that all employees who are in the office be vaccinated. “Our agency specializes in helping brands take action,” said MKG president Christine Capone. “Working with our team to take action toward creating a safer community and world through vaccination has been a no-brainer for us.” 

The new variant is just one more reason many employers intend to stick with a hybrid work arrangement. “The threat of the Omicron variant presents a whole lot of new uncertainties,” said Emily Cooper, founder of the menswear brand Oliver Wicks, which has maintained a mix of on-site and remote workers since the pandemic started. “We foresee this kind of work environment continue well into the future.” 

“We are extremely concerned with the issues that crop up with the new strain and how it will affect both our clients and our own offices,” said MaryAnn Pfeiffer, principal at New Hampshire-based digital marketing firm 108 Degrees, whose clients include the National Association of Chronic Disease Directors. “By creating flexible working conditions whenever possible, we create a normalcy that can be maintained, within reason, should the new variant require quarantines or other limitations,” she added.

“For employers, assume this is COVID 2.0. A lot of employees are going to be making complaints about having to work in close proximity to others in the office. It opens a whole new can of worms over potential disability, discrimination and whistleblower claims.”
Jonathan LaCour, labor and employment attorney and founder of Employees First Labor Law, California.

“Rushing back to the office at this stage will be needlessly disruptive, unsafe and inefficient for most,” said Dragos Badea, CEO of Yarooms, a hybrid workforce management firm that works with Cushman & Wakefield and Columbia University. “We’re seeing more and more businesses opt for hybrid whenever possible, implementing the collaborative work technologies that make it function as a response to the uncertainty with COVID.”

As for those companies that do opt to go ahead and open their doors after New Year’s, they should brace themselves. 

“For employers, assume this is COVID 2.0,” said Jonathan LaCour, a labor and employment attorney and founder of Employees First Labor Law in Pasadena, California. “A lot of employees are going to be making complaints about having to work in close proximity to others in the office. It opens a whole new can of worms over potential disability, discrimination and whistleblower claims.”

Employers that have had difficulty persuading their people to return to the office after a year and a half of remote work may now find that employees have a whole new reason to steer clear of the workplace. 

“Some companies are not allowing their employees the flexibility they need. This Omicron variant, if it’s as contagious as feared, could give employees real leverage to demand the concession of being able to work from home,” said V. James DeSimone, a civil rights and employment law attorney in Marina Del Rey, California. Employees should negotiate with managers to create schedules that work best for them, he advised, noting that by now there is ample evidence that people work productively from home. 

The labor shortage, across creative fields, the tech sector and beyond, is another factor giving employees a leg up. “The talent wars are on,” as Raven’s Van Hoven put it, “and it’s plausible that a vaccine mandate could be the deciding factor for some new hires,” he added. 

As for the many companies that have already required their people to be vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19, the emergence of Omicron could strengthen their position. “My office has gotten calls from workers saying, ‘My employer is mandating a booster. I don’t want to get one. Can they do that?’ And the answer is the same as it was with the vaccine, which is yes they can,” said Ronald Zambrano, employment litigation chair at Los Angeles-based West Coast Trial Lawyers.

While the Biden administration has faced court challenges to its vaccine mandate, the policy has still been an effective one in that it has nudged some employers to impose vaccine requirements, Zambrano added.

With the rise of Omicron, DeSimone sees still more bosses requiring vaccines and boosters moving forward. 

Despite the anti-mandate court rulings, “employers still have a lot of leeway and legal justification for requiring that their employees get vaccinated,” he said. “Employers have an obligation to do everything necessary to make the workplace safe, and requiring vaccinations is a common-sense tool to achieve that goal.”