A Return to the Office for Workers May Be Coming as Vaccinations Increase

Miodrag Ignjatovic | Getty Images
  • Even with coronavirus vaccinations, not all employees want to return to the office right away.
  • For some companies, luring workers back will be challenging.

For many people, remote work is the new normal. But it wasn't meant to last forever.

Now, as more Americans are vaccinated against Covid-19, they may be able to return to the workplace as soon as this spring.

Roughly 40% of employers that shifted to remote work at the start of the coronavirus pandemic are planning to have their workers return to the office as early as March, according to a report from The Conference Board.

Many companies, however, also said that reversing remote work after a year will be difficult. Most may make it voluntary for some and mandatory for others, the think tank found — or adopt some sort of flexible weekly schedule.

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"As the vaccine becomes more available, you will see a lot of workers returning to the office," said Laura Boudreau, an assistant professor of economics at Columbia Business School.

However, "it's not obvious that everyone will want to go back or go back right away," she added. 

For employees, the choice is clear. More than half said that, given the option, they would want to keep working from home even after the pandemic, according to a separate survey by the Pew Research Center.

Experts say employers can require employees to get vaccinated but that's unlikely, unless they work in high-risk environments, such as nursing homes or meatpacking plants.  

Most U.S. organizations said that they will encourage, rather than require, their employees to get vaccinated, according to research from the Society for Human Resource Management conducted in December. Only 3% said they will require it for at least some workers.

"It's somewhat of a gray area," said David Barron, a labor and employment attorney with Cozen O'Connor in Houston.

Equal Employment Opportunity laws allow companies to mandate the flu and other vaccines, but employees can opt out under certain circumstances. The same may be true for Covid-19 vaccines, based on early guidance.

In that case, "maybe working from home is a reasonable accommodation," Barron said.

Of course, not all workers have the ability to work from home, even during a pandemic. There's a clear class divide between workers who can and cannot telework, Pew also found. 

And for others, particularly parents of young children, telecommuting has been especially challenging.

"We are still facing similar health risks and personal challenges to what we had earlier in the pandemic — balancing work and childcare, eldercare and more, which means there are still a variety of factors companies should consider when making decisions around a return to the office," said Rhiannon Staples, a human resources expert and chief marketing officer at Hibob, a human resources technology firm.

Overall, managers and human resources teams should be flexible with employees who are reluctant to go into an office at this stage, particularly if remote work has been successful over the past 10 months, she added.

"Ultimately, there is no universal answer for every business."

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