Say hello to the office, cross your fingers

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Executives at investment firm TIAA are particularly proud of one aspect of their return-to-work plans: The company is only in its second step of setting a return-to-work date. They initially hoped to bring employees back in January, but were derailed by the Omicron variant. Now the company is aiming for March 7.

“We noticed other employers saying, ‘We’ll be back in April.’ “We will be back in June. “But we said we needed some certainty,” said Sean Woodroffe, human resources manager at TIAA, which has 12,000 U.S. employees. “This March 7 date is only the second time we’ve announced a date.”

And Mr. Woodroffe faces this new date back to the office with optimism, he explained, sitting at his desk in front of a glittering cityscape, high above what he described as “the atmosphere bustling Midtown Manhattan. After all, the company has a 98% Covid-19 vaccination rate, employees received vaccines at home tests and the line at Wendy’s Third Avenue grew longer by lunchtime.

“With Omicron, we realized we had to stop thinking about coming back to the office when Covid cleared up,” he said. “We have recognized that we need to pivot on how responsibly you deal with Covid?”

The two-year milestone since many U.S. companies sent office workers home is approaching, and some jittery executives have delivered a long-delayed message: Back-to-office plans are real this time (fingers crossed). Managers hang welcome balloons and dust off screens with confidence. Coronavirus tests are widely available, including some provided by employers. Many companies know that the majority of their employees are vaccinated. Many workers have recovered from Omicron and are resuming social activities indoors.

Executives are entering the next zone of return-to-work planning with what psychologists call “stress-related growth. They endured a long period of tumult. They emerge hopeful, armed with new ideas about how to respond when Covid cases rise and how to keep workers safe while businesses are open: by encouraging testing and imposing rules on vaccines.

“There’s a really strong feeling that we’re coming out the other side,” said Keith McFall, chief operating officer of Oklahoma City-based staffing provider Express Employment Professionals, which reopened its renovated office Feb. 7. after downsizing. a gradual reopening that began in July, then delayed a planned January return.

And there’s a sense of joy among some managers as their RTO plans come to fruition: “It was like back-to-school week, quite frankly,” said Chris Glennon, vice president of global real estate and venue. working at Intuit, who visited the company’s office in San Francisco last week. Intuit fully reopened its offices on a voluntary basis on January 18 and continues to weigh the timing of a mandatory return.

Mr Glennon noted that the company’s medical adviser had recently issued an appeal saying he had nothing but good news to share.

“‘I said, ‘Hallelujah, this is the first time we’ve been able to say that,'” he added.

American Express told workers they would be encouraged to return to the New York office starting March 1, followed by a broader return on March 15. Meta, formerly Facebook, begins its hybrid return to the desktop on March 28. Microsoft said that starting Feb. 28, workers would have 30 days to agree work preferences with their managers, with the expectation that most could work from home up to half the time, and Ford Motor said. said in April that it would adopt a hybrid working program, where many employees can be part-in-person and part-remote. This week, the Wall Street Journal’s parent company announced a flexible approach to the RTO, and the Washington Post said earlier this month that staff would be required to return in March.

Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase recalled employees Feb. 1, and Citigroup said this week that its vaccinated U.S. employees should return to the office at least two days a week starting March 21, if they have not yet returned. BNY Mellon broke with its Wall Street peers by introducing a more flexible working regime. Chevron, which had delayed its return to the office in January, demanded that Houston workers return on February 14. Some employers, like TIAA, frankly admit that if there’s a new variation, they might have to adjust their policies.

“This is the fourth call to arms,” ​​said Kathryn Wylde, head of the Partnership for New York City, a business group, adding that she recently met with a group of executives eager to see the workers in person again. Some had postponed their plans because of the Delta and Omicron variants of the coronavirus.

“They recognize that the longer people work remotely, the harder it will be to get them back into the office,” Ms Wylde said.

Office occupancy across the country is rising after a decline in January: It averaged 31% of pre-Covid levels in 10 major cities this month, up from 23% in early January and from a pandemic peak of 40% in the first week of December, according to security firm Kastle Systems. A report released last month by the Partnership for New York City found that the majority of employers surveyed expected daily footfall in their offices to exceed 50% on an average weekday in late March.

But non-work indoor activities have resumed more quickly, including dining and entertainment, leading executives to guess that obstacles to their employees’ return may not be solely related to health and safety. (Morgan Stanley Chief Executive James Gorman expressed that frustration last summer, saying that if workers could go out to eat, they could go to the office.)

“It’s about overcoming the inertia that has built up over a few years,” said Mark Ein, president of Kastle Systems. “It’s going to be a very, very long time before you see the return to the office on the same level that you’ve seen the return to other aspects of life.”

Some employers are also proceeding with caution after the havoc Omicron played with expectations to reopen offices in January.

At Meta, employees have until March 14 to decide whether they want to return to the office or request to work from home permanently or temporarily for three to five months. Meta requires everyone entering the office to be vaccinated and wear a mask, and vaccination boosters will be required starting March 28 for those who are eligible.

Jefferies, an investment bank, restarted its hybrid back-to-office plan Feb. 1 after a break in December, asking people to work with their managers to determine how many days they should commute. The office recently hit almost pre-Covid occupancy on its busiest days, a spokesperson said. The company requires everyone to be fully vaccinated and given a reminder to enter the office, and it mandates masks in common areas. All employees recently received 20 rapid antigen tests.

“Walk with a bounce in your step and a smile on your face, but don’t run,” company president Brian Friedman and chief executive Rich Handler wrote when outlining the plan to reopen offices on Tuesday. last month. “I hope that the circumstances will continue to improve and that we will all sprint together once again.”

For workers struggling to prepare for the office — especially those with caregiving responsibilities or children too young to be vaccinated — the sprint seems premature. And many employers realize that without letting people decide where they work, they could lose talent to competitors who do.

BNY Mellon, which has nearly 50,000 employees worldwide, lets managers determine the days employees will be in the office, a less rigid approach than many of its finance peers. Jolen Anderson, the bank’s human resources manager, said the bank tries to be sensitive to the needs of its employees and to differentiate itself from other potential employers.

“You can’t undo the experience that we’ve collectively had together, and you can’t undo some of the benefits that people have talked about about people being able to work remotely,” Ms Anderson said. “It would be a shame not to take these things into account when we design future working models.”

Many large employers now appear to be watching themselves and waiting for critical mass before launching RTO plans, said Ein de Kastle, who predicted a significant increase in office occupancy as Omicron declines and weather heats. Google, for example, hasn’t announced new return dates for its offices since it postponed its January plans.

Still, this month marked the start of reopenings, which for office goers included a welcome sense of pre-Covid deja vu. On the first Monday in February, Mr. McFall of Express Employment Professionals woke up at 6.30am, put on a sports coat and drove 30 minutes to his office, blasting classic rock. It was like the good old days.

He met new employees with whom he had only ever spoken on Zoom. The floors buzzed as people greeted each other and enjoyed free nuts and energy bars.

“You’re slowly coming back,” Mr. McFall said. “There is a very high level of optimism that we are going through this.”

Katie Robertson and Lananh Nguyen contributed report.

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