CEOs are gambling that pandemics are over with their remote work policies

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It’s the week after Labor Day. If you’re a U.S.-based white collar worker, you know what that means: It’s the time of year when your boss is most likely ordering you back to the office.

Whether or not you’re complying—millions of workers have been ordered back, but many are fighting it to the bitter end—the timing is pretty bad. 

That’s because the pandemic isn’t over. COVID cases in the U.S. have hit (another) high plateau, with community spread at the same levels of late last winter, Fortune’s Erin Prater reported. The culprit? A “new, highly mutated COVID variant” called Pirola BA.2.86. Luckily, most experts say that given 

Even despite the vaccine-enabled lack of panic accompanying this latest variant, the advice is the same as ever: High-risk people (the elderly, immunocompromised, those with preexisting conditions) should avoid crowded indoor settings—or navigate them with a well-fitting mask. That’s what Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told Prater last week.

But that’s just today. Ten years from now, it’s not unreasonable to expect another harmful pandemic could emerge. Just months ago, Bill Gates, who was something of a COVID Nostradamus in the years leading up to 2020, called for a “fire department for pandemics,” because more are just bound to emerge in coming years.

To avoid the worst of whatever pandemic may be around the bend, experts say it’s crucial for leaders to remember the important lessons of 2020, particularly regarding flexibility. Indeed, even non-experts in the public health field contend that, despite the massive push towards office work, some amount of remote work is non-negotiable in a pandemic context.

“If you want to prevent future infections, pandemics: Be more flexible,” flexibility expert, Stanford economist, and founder of WFH Research Nick Bloom said on a panel last month. “You need some [remote work], at least [a hybrid plan], because that means if someone’s ill, they can work from home.” 

The research consortium that Bloom heads up, WFH Research, runs a Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes (SWAA) each month, which asks 10,000 people a steady set of questions—and touches on a handful of hot topics, he explained during the webinar hosted by Scoop, a remote work technology platform. 

In July, Bloom and his team asked workers whether they were sick or injured in the last month. Six hundred thirty-three said yes—mostly that they were sick. Over three quarters—76%—of those respondents said they went into their office regardless. “Maybe some of them are your colleagues,” Bloom said. “That is not great—really far from great.” 

Bloom’s data highlights a “pretty critical” point for companies who are overly focused on a physical office return—too often at the expense of sensible COVID policies. 

As it stands, Bloom understands why people come to work even when they’re sick with a potentially infectious illness. “They have a performance review at the end of the week or next week. They’re stressed, and they’re worried [working from home] won’t look good,” he said. “Being able to work from home is a really useful alternative in that situation. I can tell my manager I don’t feel great, and maybe I won’t work a full day. But I can at least do some critical things, and that flexibility should dramatically reduce infection rates.”

It seems plainly sensible. But ironically enough, workers, bosses, and public health experts alike had this exact same conversation this time last year, heralded as yet another banner return-to-office week that never quite materialized. Indeed, any boss mandating a return must have done so assuming that the pandemic was, for all intents and purposes, behind them. 

Naturally, that proved to be poor planning. “Any modeling done more than three to four weeks ahead is meaningless,” Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), told Prater in September 2022. “We have so little experience with coronaviruses and how they play out…we’re kind of in limbo land right now.”

Despite the scary new variants, this year might finally see pandemic considerations come to an end—for better or worse. By the end of 2023, 2.5 million workers will occupy at least a hundred million square feet of office space, at least a couple of days a week, John Gates, CEO of real estate consulting firm JLL’s Americas Markets, recently told Yahoo Finance

But, then again, history would suggest that’s unlikely. Mark Ein, Kastle Systems chairman, last year told Fortune’s Trey Williams that even 60% capacity may be a pipe dream. “It goes in fits and starts,” Ein said of in-office rates. “[Office occupancy] has been on a steady rise since the beginning of [2022]. But there will be a natural ceiling to it.”

The latest data provided to Fortune from Kastle, a security company that tracks key card swipes, found that offices in the 10 largest U.S. metro areas were 47.3% full the week ending August 30—about where they’ve been for the past two years. Offices (as tracked by Kastle) have never crested more than 50.4% full. With flu season around the corner, that number is unlikely to grow. For anyone with an interest in avoiding illness (namely, everyone) maybe that’s welcome news after all. 



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