Workers Can’t Wait to Return, but Delta Variant Upends Plans

SAN FRANCISCO – Before the pandemic, Roya Joseph’s days in the office were one of interaction. She looked forward to informal conversations with colleagues, mentoring sessions with managers and regular, informal chats – known as “tea time” – in the office kitchen.

All of that was swept away when Ms. Joseph, a water engineer for Black & Veatch, an engineering firm, was sent home with the rest of the colleagues from her office in Walnut Creek, California when the coronavirus spread to the United States last year. She took the opportunity to return when her office reopened to some staff in June.

But two weeks ago the carpet was pulled away from under her feet again. Black & Veatch closed its offices as virus cases spiked nationwide, fueled by the contagious Delta variant.

“It’s depressing,” said Ms. Joseph, 32. “I feel like we’re being pushed back into this isolation bubble. I have the feeling that mentally I am not ready to face it again. “

While workers who want to stay home forever have been particularly vocal in their demands, a silent majority of Americans want to get back to the office for at least a few days a week. But as the recent coronavirus surge has caused employers to postpone plans to return to the office, this larger group is getting increasingly bleak.

In a nationwide survey of more than 950 workers conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of the New York Times in mid-August, 31 percent said they would prefer to work from home full-time. For comparison: 45 percent wanted to work full-time at a workplace or in an office. The remaining 24 percent said they wanted to split the time between work and home.

Morning Consult surveyed workers from a variety of industries, so that office workers were represented alongside those in other areas such as retail. The results of the data intelligence firm reflect recent internal surveys from employers such as Google and Twitter, as well as external surveys from companies such as Eden Workplace.

Among those who crave the routine of office life and the chatter in the work cubicle: social butterflies, managers, new employees eager to meet colleagues, and people with noisy or crowded houses.

Veronica Polivanaya, account manager at PR firm Inkhouse, quickly realized how loud it can be in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood when she started working from home. There was the distraction from her boyfriend’s daily routine – sometimes he would get up from his own work to make lunch or fetch water and end up in the background of their video calls. Then there were the neighbour’s barking dogs. Package deliveries. Construction noise.

“It was an uphill battle for us,” said Ms. Polivanaya, 30. “I feel like I don’t have a good space to focus.” Starting in July, she was able to return to the relative quiet of her office for a few days a week, but feared the rising virus could lead her back to her hectic home life.

Certainly some people are successful in their new remote working life. They saved time and money and sometimes increased productivity. The degree to which employees have adopted permanent remote or hybrid work models has been “numbing” for company executives, said Tsedal Neeley, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied remote work for decades.

But for others, Professor Neeley said, it has removed the necessary barriers between work and personal life, increased feelings of isolation, and led to burnout. “Some people just don’t like the screen – their physicality and closeness to others is a big part of what work looks like,” she said.

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Aug. 23, 2021, 2:53 p.m. ET

Many workers are already back in the offices. Only 13 percent of Americans worked from home at some point in July, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated, up from a pandemic high of 35 percent in May 2020. And some workers said the Delta variant didn’t change their employers’ return – Office plans.

But a growing number of high profile companies like Hollywood studios, Wall Street banks, and Silicon Valley tech giants have delayed their returns. For those in favor of going back to the office, the seizures and beginnings were unbearable, said Professor Neeley.

“We are in this eternal state of waiting, and it has now been extended with even more uncertainty,” she said.

David Pantera, a new assistant product marketing manager at Google, said the company had decided to turn the September orientation into a virtual event for him and other new employees due to the rise in Covid-19 cases. Google’s process, known as “Noogler Orientation”, is usually a social, community-building event that helps employees get used to one another and to the corporate culture.

Mr Pantera, a 23-year-old recent college graduate, said he was eager to start his new job but was concerned whether missing that personal experience would affect his career prospects.

“If we don’t get a really solid foundation in our first half, our first year, at this company, what is our footing for the rest of our time at the company?” Said Mr. Pantera, who lives in San Francisco. “What if that disaffects a lot of really smart, passionate, and clever people in the industry?”

For Michael Anthony Orona, 38, starting a new job during the pandemic was isolating. He was thrilled to finally meet his colleagues at Blue Squad, a company providing technical tools to progressive political candidates, when his Austin, Texas office reopened a few months ago.

Then his 10-year-old daughter caught Covid and forced Mr. Orona, his wife and two children to hide in their home. He found it almost impossible to juggle the job and look after his children. Sometimes he had to cancel meetings to make sure his 2 year old son was taking a nap.

“I’m with our 2½ year old all the time and I try to put in a few hours of work for it,” he said. “And when we get him to bed, I’ll work until the middle of the night. It’s awful. “

He also caught Covid but recently tested negative and went back to work and his children are back in school and daycare. But he expects additional quarantines.

“It feels like we’re never going to get out of here,” said Mr. Orona. “For people who work, both parents, it’s completely untenable.”

In Toronto, Alethea Bakogeorge is counting the days before she can resume her job with a music theater company. Working from home, she said, “eroded the boundaries between work and living space” and even led her to occasionally skip meals to avoid spending more time in the kitchen, which doubles as her office.

Ms. Bakogeorge, 25, has cerebral palsy, a condition that causes chronic pain. Her daily walking trips to the office, she said, provided some form of gentle exercise that helped her cope.

“I didn’t realize how much this affected my physical health as a disabled person and how much I missed it when it wasn’t there,” she said.

But the surge in coronavirus cases has dashed hopes of a summer return.

“In May, I thought we might be leaning in a direction where I could go back to the office,” she said. “With the Delta variant, I think it is far less realistic to hope to return to the office soon.”

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