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Have Return-to-Office Plans Become Much Ado About Nothing?


This weekend on CBS’s Face the Nation, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb painted an optimistic outlook for a return to normal in the U.S., stating that many of the gains from vaccinations are “locked in” — and giving me food for thought on what how this will play out in the workplace.
As an example, Gottlieb shared how San Francisco, with around 71% of people vaccinated, is seeing daily COVID cases in the 20s, along with the same number of hospitalizations. This summer, with a large portion of the population vaccinated and warmer weather across the country, should a wholesale return to some semblance of normal, though precautions like mask-wearing and social distancing will remain for some time, he added.
While Gottlieb didn’t speak specifically on how this might apply to a return to the office, I couldn’t help but wonder: Do locations with few COVID cases need the same level of precautions as more heavily impacted areas? For example, do San Francisco workplaces need to have the same level of COVID precautions as an office in, let’s say, the 15 Oregon counties where COVID cases are on the rise? While large organizations might want to take a uniform approach when it comes to returning to the office, other smaller companies might base it on the dynamics in their particular geographies.
In addition to a positive trend in the U.S.'s fight against the disease, we also know more about how precisely the virus spreads. In an April 5 update, the CDC said that contact with a contaminated surface has a “1 in 10,000 chance of causing [a COVID] infection,” citing several studies on the subject. While the CDC couldn't completely rule out transmission via contact with a contaminated surface, it noted how airborne transmission of COVID poses a greater risk.
With that knowledge, a facilities leader might prioritize air filtration over office deep cleans but still provide an ample supply of sanitizer for employees, for instance. Or maybe the major IT investment in antimicrobial devices might not seem as important now.
In bringing up these two items, I don’t mean to throw caution to the wind and imply that COVID isn’t a serious disease — vaccinations and safety precautions are key to returning to normal and office. It’s also not to imply that workplaces should disregard the lessons learned over the last year and rush head-on to 100% working in the office. However, workplace leaders need to consider the current moment, the latest facts, and plan accordingly. And if that means some elements of the return-to-office plan look different than how they appeared a year ago — that’s a-okay.
I’d wager to say many workplaces will opt for an overabundance of caution and still carry through with elements like social distancing and a phased return to the office. However, I hope workplace strategists take a moment to reflect on some of the positive news and how that too might influence the future of the workplace.