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Omicron Variant Signals Need for Continued Workplace Flexibility

professionals in a hybrid meeting, employees sitting at desk and employees on video call
Elizabeth Fierman
Published on

COVID-19 live updates: Vaccines appear less effective against omicron, WHO says

Omicron in D.C., 30 U.S. states as variant poised to dominate in Europe

Omicron can hit fully vaccinated, Oxford study says

That’s just a sampling of recent news headlines involving the latest COVID-19 variant: Omicron. 

While we can’t confidently comment on what this means for the world at large, we do have a few thoughts on what this means for workplaces. It comes down to this:

Navigating through continued uncertainty is the new reality for corporate leaders. 

Put simply, no one can really say what’s coming next so leaders are tasked with creating workplace strategies that cover all the bases. 

What does that mean for return-to-office plans?

We anticipate some businesses staying the course for a 2022 return and others re-evaluating their plans and timeline amidst this new uncertainty, especially with the holiday season upon us. 

One thing is for certain, these variants will continue to creep up and they may influence returns, lockdowns, mandates and beyond.

Organizations need to plan for the unplannable. To do so, leaders must:

  • Stay flexible: Businesses that embrace flexible work models will better be able to adapt to the ever-changing new normal of working. 
  • Listen, collect and learn: Data around how employees are utilizing the workplace offers invaluable insight for leaders making this transition. 
  • Prioritize people over places: Companies best positioned to weather these challenges have one overarching characteristic in common: they prioritize employees over the office

Let’s take a look at what we learned from the Delta variant and how leaders can prepare themselves to manage their teams and culture with the newest variant.

Lessons from the Delta variant on return-to-office impact

The Delta Variant caused many companies to realize that ‘going back to normal’ was never really an option. Science tells us that new variants will appear and that uncertainty will continue to play a dominant role in all of our work lives. 

Delta impacted the speed at which organizations could return but that didn’t mean that the back-to-office process stopped.

According to our data, the new variant didn’t change overarching return to office strategies or the move to a hybrid work model. In fact, we saw desk bookings rise to 15% in September compared to August, with the number of US employees returning to the office increasing by 21%. 

This data confirmed our hypothesis that the decline in employees returning was more closely correlated to the summer months than the Delta variant surge. Despite continued uncertainty, our data shows a continued uptick in workforces returning with the average US office capacity hitting a pandemic-high of 25% in October.  

Looking back at the ebbs and flows of the pandemic it’s clear the use of the traditional office is forever changed, but it isn’t dead. 

Omicron: A reminder for workplaces to stay adaptable

Businesses need to take this opportunity to build an opt-in, hybrid work model that offers employees more flexibility and creates an equal experience for fully remote, fully in-office and hybrid employees.  

Looking back on this month, our team of data scientists saw office capacity in the US peaked at 27% the week of the 8th and has since dipped to the expected holiday level of about 15% last week.  

With people still coming into the office and others not quite feeling comfortable yet, how do you move forward with a plan that works for everyone? 

3 tips for leaders navigating the Omicron surge  

1. Don’t claim to know what you don’t 

By the end of 2020, we had all heard the phrase ‘unprecedented times’ about a million times. But here’s the thing: cliches only become cliches because they are undeniably true. 

In this new version of the workplace, nobody has the right answers yet. Moreover, your employees know that you don’t have the answer. Beware making blanket decisions or bullet-proof plans, your teams are expecting periods of change. 

Be transparent and be prepared to pivot your plans. Stay adaptable and accept that you don’t know where this great hybrid work experiment will end up.

2. The only way forward is flexible 

Companies around the world are quickly embracing hybrid work models in some capacity. But a fair share of them are also trying to fit a rigid policy into a flexible framework.

If this sounds like you, stop and re-assess. In this new workplace, no one has the right answers yet. Flexible work is still unknown to most leaders and it’s okay to be working through your ideal scenario for the foreseeable future.

3. Collect the right data, apply the right context

Data may be king but context is definitely queen. It’s important to understand the context of your numbers. While the information itself is useful, the story behind those data points is where the real magic lives.

As we move into 2022, information around how teams feel about their office trips or workplace experiences will play a pivotal role in decisions. Some employees come into the office for human connection. Other employees visit their workplaces to get some quiet time. 

And the use cases don’t end there. Start by aiming to understand the core motivators for going into the office. Businesses can then leverage employee feedback to make smart, strategic changes to their office environments.

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