American companies delaying return-to-office, keeping employees in limbo

The hardest question to answer for American corporations: When should offices reopen?

From Silicon Valley to Tennessee to Pennsylvania, high hopes that a rapid vaccine rollout in early 2021 would send millions of workers back into offices by spring have been scuttled, The Wall Street Journal reports. Many companies are pushing workplace return dates to September—and beyond—or refusing to commit to specific dates, telling employees it will be a wait-and-see remote-work year.

The delays span industries. Qurate Retail Inc., the parent company of brands such as Ballard Designs, QVC and HSN, recently shifted its planned May return to offices in the Philadelphia area, Atlanta and other cities until September at the earliest. Return-to-office dates have shifted so much in the past year that some companies aren’t sharing them with employees. Atlanta-based shipping giant United Parcel Service Inc. and Boston-based financial services firm Fidelity Investments Inc. haven’t announced return dates, instead telling workers signing on from home that the companies are monitoring the coronavirus pandemic and will call workers back when it is safe.

Nearly a year of makeshift work at home has weighed on employees, leaders say. While many companies say productivity is up, executives worry that creativity is suffering and say that burnout is on the rise. Even so, bosses struggle to say when things will change. 

“Everyone’s in the moment of limbo. They want certainty, but they know they can’t have it,” says Elizabeth Mygatt, an associate partner at consulting firm McKinsey & Co., who advises companies on organizational performance. Companies that assigned return dates last year now hesitate to do so, she adds.

“I have seen fewer companies be actually super clear on what the future looks like,” she says.

A new survey of 2,200 U.S. workers by the Conference Board, a research group, found that 44% of employees polled didn’t know their company’s plans to return to the workplace. That is up from last September, when 37% of respondents polled by the group said they were unclear on their back-to-the-office plan. Read the full story.