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Companies Are Already Pushing Their Return-To-Office Dates to 2022—Why Some Experts Say It's a ‘Smart Approach'

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Concerns over the rising numbers of Covid-19 cases due to the highly contagious delta variant are sending corporate return-to-work policies askew.

In the last few weeks, a handful of the most influential tech companies in the U.S., including Google and Apple, delayed their return dates from September to October. On Wednesday, Lyft CEO Logan Green announced it will push its September return date by six months until February 2, 2022.

The delay applies to the majority of the rideshare company's U.S. locations, including San Francisco, Seattle, New York City, Denver, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

In a memo provided to CNBC Make It, Green wrote to employees that the company intended to bring workers back assuming "improving Covid trends," but grew concerned over the delta variant's spread in recent weeks. He said the rising number of cases, as well as the CDC's updated guidance on indoor masking, led them to decide to extend the date of return.

"While we're hopeful vaccination rates continue to climb and case counts improve," he wrote, "we want to offer team members who can do their work remotely the flexibility to continue to do so until we're in the clear."

The lengthy extension "is meant to provide a buffer of several weeks after the winter holiday for team members to settle into their assigned offices." Lyft's offices will remain open for those who choose to continue working onsite, though employees are required to wear masks and, effective August 2, must be vaccinated against Covid-19.

Last week, software company Asana also pushed its return-to-office date for all San Francisco and New York employees to "no earlier than February 1," The New York Times reported.

Nearly two years of remote work

Lyft and Asana's decision to extend remote work into 2022 far outpaces the incremental delays many other companies have announced so far. Employees who continue to work remotely until the new February return date will have spent nearly two years away from the office during the pandemic.

These changes as a whole can be a "smart approach" if they're made based on government policy and guidance, local transmission data and, most importantly, employee feedback, says George Penn, vice president in the Gartner HR practice, a research and advisory company.

Organizations who change their pandemic-era work policies will have to weigh whether any short-term disruptions outweigh what he considers "long-term destruction," which can erode employee trust and potentially company culture.

Lyft's decision to extend remote work, for example, may indicate they're not concerned people will quit if they're not able to return in-person. Or, they may know that a majority of employees are planning to continue permanent remote work even after the risks of the pandemic subside.

Companies who change their return policy should communicate clearly to employees the reasons why they're doing so, Penn says, and what they're basing their decision on.

Additionally, "as organizations push return dates out further, there will be a greater need for flexibility on return-to-office requirements," Penn tells CNBC Make It. "If the company is performing well and individual employees are performing well remotely, many will beg the question, 'why are you mandating a return?'"

Working through an emergency

Penn expects that instead of following Lyft and Asana's lead, many organizations will lean toward more short-term delays "unless there's some seismic change in the data."

But from a public health perspective, February might still be too soon to resume business operations, Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy, tells CNBC Make It.

With cases rising in all 50 states in recent weeks and the potential it could get worse in the fall "suggests we may not be ready in winter and could continue to see increases," Lee says.

That said, he stresses future patterns in transmission may not mirror what happened in the winter of 2020 because of vaccination, social distancing and mask-wearing efforts.

While he says it makes sense for businesses to adjust their office returns, short-term delays could leave employees waiting in limbo with unrealistic expectations.

"We're in the middle of a pandemic," Lee says. "It's an emergency. It's going to be back-and-forth. I don't think it's a good idea to say we'll relax policies as quickly as possible."

Instead, he says it's crucial leaders communicate aspirational benchmarks and emphasize what adjustments must be made if those numbers aren't met.

Employee mental health should remain in focus

No matter when companies plan to go back, employers should also give greater focus to supporting employee mental health, in addition to physical safety, when adjusting and communicating their return-to-office plans.

These concerns are often overlooked or not fully considered in employment sectors, Lee says. According to a June McKinsey report, workers back in the office or anticipating their return are increasingly concerned about getting sick from the virus and losing flexibility in their workday.

"People want to be assured that precautions are maintained and they aren't being forced back to work for the sake of the bottom line," Lee says.

Business leaders should also be proactive in providing open dialogue and expert guidance to address misinformation and disinformation about the virus, the vaccine and employees' attitudes about the pandemic.

Check out:

Biden vaccine mandate for federal workers sets precedent for private employers to follow

Twitter, Facebook, Google among major companies changing return-to-office plans

Employers are rethinking return-to-office amid delta variant spread and CDC indoor masking guidance

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