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How omicron is upending plans for a return to business as usual

“Business leaders are currently figuring out how the omicron variant could impact their workplaces,” says Dr. Neal Mills, chief medical officer at Aon. “They are recognizing that they are going to need to revisit many of the decisions they’ve made.”

Credit card lender Discover Financial Services is delaying its previously planned January return to the office until March 1. Mondelez also has postponed its plans to return in January. Google has put off its planned January return, but Facebook is moving ahead. Citadel, which fully reopened its offices in June, told employees they could work from home during the second half of December because of rising COVID cases.

Companies are trying to get back to something resembling normal operations, while acknowledging they’ll never completely return to the way things were before the pandemic. For most, that means some combination of traditional office work and the COVID reality of working from home. It also includes getting back on the road, although not as often. How quickly they return to the office and to the air have big economic implications for Chicago as a major corporate center and travel hub.

West Monroe Partners, a consulting firm with about 800 workers in Chicago and 2,000 globally, decided to stick with its Jan. 18 return date, which was set in September.

“There are going to be variants, spikes and waves; and if we continue to kick the can with every wave, we’re going to kick the can in perpetuity,” says Kevin Rooney, West Monroe’s chief administrative officer. “This is a habit (working from home) that’s been well worn and trained over many months, and changing it is not going to be easy.”

The benefits of bringing workers back together are worth it, he says. “There are more opportunities from a mentorship standpoint: Our young consultants are craving a connection. Having your team together and whiteboarding, the conversation is richer and deeper. A 25-minute Zoom call can be a 5-minute conversation face to face.”

Companies must weigh those advantages against the health risks of requiring employees to gather in offices as COVID transmission accelerates again. Another concern is potential backlash from employees who have come to rely on the flexibility of working from home.

Not wanting to commute to an office was the second-most common reason people turned down job offers, according to a survey of human resources, finance and operations executives by LaSalle Network, a Chicago recruiting firm. Scott Sargis, president of Strategic Search Corp., who specializes in technical recruiting, says an engineer he recently placed at a suburban firm left the job after the company required employees to return to the office.

Further complicating the picture are government edicts, such as vaccine requirements and indoor mask mandates. Kyle Kamin, a vice chairman and office broker at CBRE, says more companies will require workers to come back to the office when state and local requirements to wear masks indoors are lifted.

“So long as we have a mask mandate, it’s an acknowledgment we’re still in a pandemic, and it’s difficult for business leaders to ask their employees to come back,” he says. “If my people have to wear a mask while walking around the office, it’s an acknowledgment that things are not normal. Many of them feel they’ve lost political capital in having to make announcements and then change their plans.”

Business travel also is starting to return, even as omicron dents demand for leisure flying. Fred Hoch, the founder of TechNexus, a venture capital investment firm in Chicago, plans to attend the Consumer Electronics Show, which starts Jan. 5 in Las Vegas, for the first time in two years.

“Hopefully it’s the start of the world coming back to life,” he says, but acknowledges omicron could change things. “It will take shows like this to get us back up and running. The world does not progress on zoom alone. There are a lot of overdue meetings in person that need to happen and a lot of relationships that need to be nurtured.”

United Airlines sees CES as a kickoff to a long-awaited return of business travel. The airline added 44 flights to Las Vegas to service the tech trade show. It kept the schedule intact even after the omicron variant was detected after Thanksgiving.

“People will sign up and make last-minute decisions whether to go or not,” says Helane Becker, an airline stock analyst at Cowen. “We expect that attendance may not be as great as it was in 2019. But it will be strong, as people are tired of not fully doing their jobs, and this is one of those things that ‘everybody’ likes to attend. We think people will go, and airlines will add flights to support that show and others.”

PR firm Edelman, which is beginning a voluntary return to the office in January, started traveling last year. “We do fly and meet with clients if everyone feels comfortable,” says Kevin Cook, president of Edelman’s Chicago office. “We seem to take baby steps. Some clients are eager to be in person, others are on a different part of the spectrum.”

Still, companies are watching omicron carefully. “For now, we are traveling more than we did earlier in the year and expect that trend to continue,” says Jacob Babcock, CEO of NuCurrent, a Chicago startup that makes wireless-charging systems. “The new normal is to expect radical changes to pop up in a matter of days and . . . adapting to those decisions on the fly.”

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