The only thing certain about the COVID-19 pandemic as summer grinds on into fall, at least from the corporate point of view, is its uncertainty.
That includes whether to bring employees back to the office, and many decision-makers now are deciding to kick that can down the road while America deals with a growing viral load brought on by the delta variant.
While Labor Day had been seen for months as an unofficial end to shuttered offices, that day will be long gone before millions of Americans return to their cubicles and corner offices -- masked or unmasked -- if they ever do at all.
A LinkedIn survey done in July shows that 36% of office workers currently doing their thing at home said they still didn't know whether that arrangement is permanent or when it might change.
And when it does change, and offices reopen, there's a lot of toothpaste not going back into the tube, as office workers around the world say they'll quit instead of going back after tasting the freedom of remote working. That number was nearly 30% in a survey last winter, and people are even more used to working from home -- and other places -- now.
We'll go back when we can, but will it be enough?
Of course, millions of people will go back to the office when they can, and lots of them want to. I can only speak for myself, but I know I'd rather work around people when we can do it without giving each other some potentially fatal crud.
Businesses of all kinds -- including real estate interests in office and retail -- really need that to happen, especially in central business districts that are getting hammered by the lack of traffic as offices remain temporarily or even permanently shuttered. Manhattan is a kind of ground zero for that, and delays in all those millions of office workers coming back will only continue the pain and maybe delay the inevitable for many a small business and its landlord.
Our Maurie Backman reports here on what several major employers are doing about requiring vaccinations.
We can't report on what every major employer is doing about reopening their offices, but here's what several are doing:
Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) has told its corporate employees that they won't be expected back in the office until Jan. 3 instead of the originally planned Sept. 3.
According to The New York Times, the Aug. 5 announcement apparently did not modify policies that encourage but do not require vaccines nor its mask policy that allows employees at its corporate offices and vast warehouse network to work without masks if they provide proof of vaccination.
Amazon now employs nearly a million people in the United States -- including about 75,000 in and near its Seattle headquarters -- making it the nation's second-largest employer behind Walmart.
Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) is delaying the return of staff to its corporate offices until at least January, according to a memo sent to employees on Aug. 20, Bloomberg reported. That's been pushed out from first September and then October.
When they do return, the company says, for most employees it'll be in a hybrid setting with at least three days at the office -- Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays -- and the option of working remotely on Wednesdays and Fridays. Employees also can work remotely up to two full weeks a year.
Altogether, Apple says it has about 80,000 employees, including about 12,000 at its California headquarters. Its workforce is in 29 cities with 250 or more employees and 44 states with Apple stores (plus one in Washington, D.C.) About 13,000 work as call center support representatives.
BlackRock (NYSE: BLK) has delayed until Oct. 1 when staff need to return to the office. The world's largest asset manager is extending what it calls a "re-acclimation period" which allowed people who wanted to return to the office to do so if fully vaccinated, according to a company memo obtained by the New York Post.
"We will provide an update on our Future of Work pilot in early September and appreciate your patience as we work through the details amidst this evolving situation," the memo said. BlackRock says it has more than 16,000 employees in 35 countries.
Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL) has extended voluntary telecommuting to its massive workforce until Oct.18 and is requiring on-site staff at its campuses to be vaccinated, according to a July 28 memo from Google/Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai.
"For those of you with special circumstances, we will soon be sharing expanded temporary work options that will allow you to apply to work from home through the end of 2021," the memo said.
The company has more than 135,000 employees, including at its Googleplex headquarters in Mountain View, California, other U.S. offices, and more than 40 other countries.
Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) still plans to fully reopen corporate offices in September but in a hybrid work model that has some people telecommuting, some in the office, some a combination of the two, and often, it's up to them.
"We have already set the policy that up to 50% [of the time], without asking anyone, you can work from home," CEO Satya Nadella said in a July 29 live event on CNN. "And if you need exceptions to that, you can ask your manager and get approval for that as well. So we have already incorporated quite a bit of flexibility."
Nadella said the Seattle-based software giant will continue to assess the arrangement, leaning on data and research.
Charles Schwab (NYSE: SCHW) announced on Aug. 19 that it will not call staff back to the office any sooner than January. The Westlake, Texas-based brokerage said its workforce of about 32,500 people can continue to choose to return to the office on a voluntary basis or continue working from home. When they are called back in, it will be on a hybrid work model offering a more flexible schedule, the company said.
Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC) has kicked its back-in-the-office date to Oct. 4 from the previously announced date of Sept. 7, published reports say.
San Francisco-based Wells Fargo has about 260,000 employees, the most of any U.S. bank, and also resumed a requirement that all employees currently working in offices wear masks, regardless of their vaccination status, a spokesperson told Bloomberg.
The Millionacres bottom line
I guess it's human nature to assume the coronavirus plague will go away eventually, but eventually can be a long time. Heck, the Black Death -- the bubonic plague -- kept rearing its deadly head for 300 years, and still pops up occasionally.
It's a bacteria vulnerable to antibiotics, of course, and viruses aren't. That's why vaccines are so critical to keeping civilization on its feet these days, as well as measures like social distancing and masks.
Businesses can require those, but what they can't do so easily is make people who don't want to come back, either because they don't want to be vaccinated or masked and/or because that work-from-home thing is not easily surrendered.
Either way, forcing it on them can reduce a workforce fast. As Microsoft's Nadella said, "People will vote with their feet."
Alert investors would be well served keeping that new reality in mind and looking for ways to leverage all that remote working that so many had thought would be temporary.