Corporate America is starting to allow workers to go maskless and ordering them back to the office as states and cities relax COVID-19 rules, signaling that the era of delayed reopenings is coming to an end and a tough period of negotiation over remote and “hybrid” work is starting.
Microsoft said it plans to reopen its offices in Washington state and California on Feb. 28, and Ford is bringing corporate employees back into the office by April.
Some companies, including Wells Fargo, plan to use a hybrid model in which most employees report to the office three days a week, starting March 14.
Workers are migrating back to the office two years after the start of the pandemic and some stutter steps. Companies outlined reopening plans only to delay them because of new variants and surges of COVID-19 cases.
The gradual return to private-sector offices coincides with a steady change in thinking at the government level. State leaders say the prevalence of vaccines, boosters and treatments means it is time to live with the virus, even as the Biden administration takes a more cautious approach.
New York Mayor Eric Adams has told businesses to stop waffling and bring workers back to the office. He said the city’s “financial ecosystem” depends on foot traffic.
“The best thing we can do to deal with COVID is get back to work,” Mr. Adams told reporters after a meeting last week with CEOs. “We can’t send mixed messages. We can’t keep kicking the can down the road. It’s time.”
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Returning to business as usual will be difficult.
Despite the rush to relax rules, COVID-19 cases remain higher than at most other points in the pandemic, and surveys suggest workers have grown accustomed to working from home if their type of work can accommodate it.
A Pew Research Center survey released last week found that about 6 in 10 workers who can do their jobs remotely are staying home all or most of the time.
Among those who could report to a worksite, a majority (61%) say they choose to stay home. The rest say their offices remain closed. Of those working remotely, 60% say they would like to continue working from home after the pandemic, up from 54% in 2020.
“Honestly, the big challenge is workers don’t want to go back,” said Arthur Caplan, director of the division of medical ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine.
Workers hate commutes and have embraced their new rhythms, he said.
Although Mr. Adams is begging for a return, it is “not going to happen,” Mr. Caplan said. “That is an unexpected consequence of COVID.”
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Wells Fargo is taking a split approach as workers report for part of the week.
Employees will no longer have assigned desks. Instead, they will populate “neighborhoods” of offices and desks with rotating residents, depending on who is in the office that day, according to National Public Radio.
Fully vaccinated employees can choose whether to wear a mask. Unvaccinated workers must submit to regular testing and wear a mask at all times unless they are eating or drinking or alone in an enclosed room, Scott Powell, the chief operating officer at Wells Fargo, said in a recent memo to workers.
“It has been a long journey to get to this point of bringing our teams back, and there have been some necessary pauses and breaks along the way. We have been tracking the external environment carefully, and improving conditions make planning for our return possible,” he wrote. “In addition, we’ve been busy preparing our workspace, and we are ready for you. Thank you for remaining flexible as we’ve navigated through the pandemic.”
Ford Motor Co. said a hybrid model will be the primary work arrangement for people whose jobs do not require them to be on-site. Whether these workers need to be in the office will depend partly on project deadlines requiring them to work with colleagues in person.
“For more than a year, we have been preparing to launch our new hybrid work model where non-site-dependent employees can work flexibly between Ford campuses and remote options. Given our ongoing safety protocols and vaccination rates, our campuses will begin welcoming additional team members on-site beginning in April,” a company spokesperson said.
Microsoft, which cited high vaccination rates in the King County area, which includes Seattle, said that starting Feb. 28, “employees will have 30 days to make adjustments to their routines and adopt the working preferences they’ve agreed upon with their managers.”
Some large companies are easing COVID-19 rules for workers who are on-site already.
Two retail behemoths, Amazon and Walmart, told vaccinated workers last week that they will not have to wear masks unless mandated by local rules.
Tyson Foods, a major meat processor, is easing mask rules for vaccinated workers in places that allow it or where U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations do not demand face coverings.
JPMorgan Chase followed New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s decision to lift a state mask mandate. The company told employees that “masks are now completely voluntary anywhere in our U.S. buildings for employees who are fully vaccinated unless there are more stringent local restrictions in place.”
The New York Stock Exchange has made masks voluntary for fully vaccinated workers on the trading floor.
The National Retail Federation said most of its member companies require workers to wear masks while letting local rules dictate whether face coverings are required for customers, said Ed Egee, vice president of government relations and workforce development.
He said retailers are waiting for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to update its mask guidance. Right now, the CDC says people should cover their faces in public indoor spaces in counties with high or substantial transmission — basically the whole country.
The CDC signaled it will issue an update this week after finding itself trailing Democratic-run states in a rush to relax rules.
“That tension there, the daylight between the two positions, is troubling for our members,” Mr. Egee told The Washington Times. “We have not taken a position, we have not lobbied CDC on what they should do. We certainly hope it’s a science-driven analysis.”
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.