Employees could be heading back to the office sooner than they think

By Jessica Dickler

The days of working from home may be numbered.

While some companies, including JPMorgan Chase, Salesforce and PricewaterhouseCoopers, are dumping office space, others are ramping up their return-to-work plans. 

Just this week, Google, one of the first major U.S. companies to send employees home last year because of the coronavirus, told staffers it is accelerating plans to get back in the office ahead of the Sept. 1 return deadline.

In a memo to Bloomberg employees first reported by Business Insider, Michael Bloomberg said heexpects workers to return to the office as soon as they are vaccinated.

In a survey of more than 350 CEOs and human resources and finance leaders, 70 percent said they plan to have employees back in the office by the fall of this year, according to a report by staffing firm LaSalle Network.

“I think every office will have re-entry done by Labor Day,” said LaSalle Network’s founder and CEO, Tom Gimbel.

One year into the coronavirus pandemic, employers, particularly tech companies like Microsoft, Twitter, Square, Spotify, Shopify and Amazon, extended work-from-home policies, some indefinitely. That helped perpetuate the idea that remote work was here to stay.

“Everybody was driven by the tech companies,” Gimbel said. “Then, all of a sudden, you get this ‘vaccines for all’ laid in your lap.” (In fact, many states are now expanding eligibility guidelines for who qualifies to get a shot.)

“My bet is, within a year, things will retreat back to normal,” said Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

“It’s hard to change workplace behavior.”

Of the companies that are now planning for office re-entry, managing employees who want to continue working remotely is a top concern, LaSalle Network found.    

Vaccinated or not, more than half of employees said that, given the option, they would want to keep working from home even after the Covid crisis subsides, according to a separate survey by the Pew Research Center.  

Other obstacles included addressing fears about commuting to work and reacclimating to the office environment, as well as potential conflicts between executives and staff over return-to-work policies.

Meanwhile, business leaders are also working to make vaccines more accessible to their employees and even incentivizing them to get inoculated. 

“I imagine you’ll see more employers providing access to the vaccines.”

Already, employers such as AT&T, Instacart, Target, Trader Joe’s, Chobani, Petco, Darden Restaurants, McDonald’s and Dollar General are among a growing list of companies giving workers time off and extra money to get vaccinated for Covid-19.

Roughly 8 in 10 employers said immunizations will pave the way to a new normal in terms of returning to the workplace, according to another poll of nearly 500 employers by Willis Towers Watson, a benefits consulting firm.

“A common strategy for employers is to make vaccines an easy choice for employees by first helping convince them to get the vaccine and then making it easy for them to do so,” said Jeff Levin-Scherz, Willis Towers Watson’s population health leader.

About a quarter of employers are going a step further by obtaining vaccines to administer to their employees directly or facilitating access to vaccines through a third party — and another 55 percent are planning or considering doing this, Willis Towers Watson found.

“I imagine you’ll see more employers providing access to the vaccines,” said Wharton’s Cappelli. “I imagine there are all sorts of deals that can be cut.”

Experts say employers can require employees to get vaccinated but that’s unlikely unless they work in high-risk environments, such as nursing homes or meatpacking plants. 

Most employers said that they will encourage, rather than require, their employees to get vaccinated, according to Willis Towers Watson. Only 10 percent of employers said vaccines should be mandatory.

Equal Employment Opportunity laws allow companies to mandate the flu and other vaccines, but employees can opt out under certain circumstances. The same may be true for Covid vaccines, based on early guidance.