< Omicron Variant Leads Companies to Rethink Plans to Reopen Offices
By Bryan Lynn
16 December 2021

Many companies are delaying plans to bring workers back to the office because of continuing concerns over the spread of the coronavirus. One big concern is the recently discovered Omicron version, or variant, of COVID-19.

Health officials are still studying the Omicron variant. But there have been early signs that it may be less dangerous than the Delta variant. Delta is still responsible for most coronavirus cases, especially in the United States, and continues to cause hospitalizations.

A Google logo is seen at the company's headquarters in Mountain View, California, U.S., November 1, 2018. (REUTERS/ Stephen Lam)
A Google logo is seen at the company's headquarters in Mountain View, California, U.S., November 1, 2018. (REUTERS/ Stephen Lam)

But a number of unknowns surrounding Omicron has led companies of all sizes to rethink plans to reopen their offices.

Technology company Google and the nation's second largest automaker, Ford Motor Company, are among those that have once again delayed their return-to-office plans. Other businesses that already brought workers back are considering adding extra safety measures like requiring masks.

Officials in Britain, Denmark, Norway and Sweden also have recently asked employees to work from home if they can because of concerns about Omicron.

Meta, formerly known as Facebook, and ridesharing company Lyft recently announced they were letting workers delay their return when offices fully reopen early next year. Meta still plans to open its headquarters at the end of January but will permit workers to delay their return to as late as June. Lyft says it will not require workers to come back to its offices through all of next year.

The moves come after many big companies decided to postpone requirements for workers to return to offices in the autumn. Those decisions were largely linked to the spread of the Delta variant.

Jeff Levin-Scherz is with the international advisory company Willis Tower Watson. He told The Associated Press that 18 months ago, most people thought the work-from-home policies would only be in place for a short time. "But the pandemic has thrown us many curves, and employers need to continue to be nimble."

Willis Tower Watson carried out research involving 543 companies that employ 5.2 million workers. The research showed that on average, 34 percent of employees permitted to work from home remain remote. The results found that that number would drop to 27 percent by the first quarter of 2022. However, the research was completed before news of Omicron came out.

Lawrence Gostin is a public health expert at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. He told the AP he does not think there is enough scientific information on Omicron to support company decisions to delay their return-to-office plans.

He said there is likely to be a continuing series of new variants, as well as rises and falls in COVID-19 cases going forward. "We shouldn't disrupt normal business activity at every possible trigger," Gostin said.

He noted that a combination of protective measures – such as face coverings, vaccinations and ventilation methods – are highly effective at preventing virus spread in the workplace.

Still, the rise of new variants seems to be having a psychological effect on some business owners.

"Omicron has made me realize work life will never return to the way it was pre-COVID," said Gisela Girard. She is president of Creative Civilization, an advertising agency. The company's 12 employees have been working remotely since March 2020.

"It made me realize how working from home is likely to keep employees, their families and also our clients safe," Girard said.

Her company had planned to bring workers back to the office part time in the autumn. But the Delta variant delayed those plans until early next year. Now, Omicron has her reconsidering not only those plans, but also whether to bring the employees back at all.

I'm Bryan Lynn.

The Associated Press reported this story. Bryan Lynn adapted the report for VOA Learning English. Susan Shand was the editor.

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Words in This Story

curve – n. something that is surprising or unexpected and can affect other things

nimble – adj. able to move quickly and easily

remote – adj. happening a far distance away

disrupt – v. to interrupt something and stop it from continuing as it should

trigger – n. an event or situation that makes something else happen

ventilation – n. a system that permits fresh air to enter and move through a room, building, etc.

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