When return to office becomes return to home: What Ford, Google and others are telling employees as Omicron surges

The Omicron variant put many RTO plans on ice. Here’s how top communicators are responding to the latest twist in the pandemic while not setting another office-return deadline.

Another set of RTO dates has come and gone. (Photo credit: Getty Images).

So much for seeing everyone back at the office to start the new year. 

With Omicron proving more contagious than any other COVID-19 variant to date, major companies are again pushing back their dates for getting office employees back into their cubicles.

In the auto sector, Ford Motor Co. had set January 2022 as a target. Now it’s delayed RTO by a couple more months. 

“We recently told employees we would now launch our hybrid model for our non-place-dependent employees in March,” says Marisa Bradley, the automaker’s director of internal comms. 

Having previously used town halls and emails to communicate internally about RTO, for this update Ford used a video message from CEO Jim Farley. 

“The message also reiterated the importance of continuing to follow safety protocols for all team members,” says Bradley. 

Ford’s RTO affects up to 17,000 salaried employees in North America. 

After the staff announcement, the automaker also issued a statement to the media on December 6. It explained that, while the automaker’s ongoing safety protocols have been a success and vaccinations rates have increased, “the state of the COVID-19 virus remains fluid.” 

Ford also announced a “pilot phase” before rolling out its RTO plan en masse. The pilot is scheduled to start in February and will see “select employees” shift to working between Ford campuses and remote options as they come back from fully remote status. 

Google also postponed its RTO. Employees were set to start a work week with three days on-site and two days remote on January 10. That was also not to be. 

Yet unlike Ford, Google is not setting a new RTO date, at least not anytime soon. Instead, the company is waiting until it can predict “a stable, long-term working environment” – and when that might be is anyone’s guess at the moment. 

The message was communicated to Google’s U.S. employees from the company’s security VP, Chris Rackow, in an email later shared with media. 

Corey duBrowa, Google VP of global comms and public affairs, says, “We're eager to see what the new year holds for when our offices are ready to kick off a new hybrid work-week approach.”  

In the meantime, he says “we’re giving employees who welcome the chance to come into the office the option to do that wherever we safely can, while allowing those who aren’t ready to keep working from home.” 

Apple also said yesterday in an employee message from CEO Tim Cook that it has scrapped a return to hybrid work “to a date to be determined.” It had already delayed RTO from September to January to February before taking a time completely off the table. 

Employers were more comfortable assigning a RTO date given the improving outlook of the pandemic in the U.S. only a few months ago, setting dates at least a month in advance, if not further out. As Ford’s Bradley notes, we want “to help employees plan as much as possible.” For instance, remote workers with young children at home might need to make alternative daycare arrangements. 

For many workplaces, a RTO date gave hope to staffers suffering from pandemic fatigue or simply missing in-person colleague interaction and a sense of normalcy. But now that thinking is shifting both in-house and at agencies. A number of agency leaders declined to go on the record with PRWeek about the issue, indicating the return to the office is becoming an even more sensitive topic in corner offices.

One executive says continuing to communicate dates is “ridiculous” because a pandemic doesn’t follow corporate schedules. After so many delays, it’s hard for employees to take new deadlines seriously. It can also set up a false hope, or worse, make staffers think their companies are out of touch or not putting employees’ health and safety first. 

Another notes that some companies and agencies are already partially open or fully open. If indicators get worse in the new year, companies are in a difficult bind: having to manage employee concerns and frustrations, as well as another potential return to remote. 

Many agencies continue to be agile in addressing RTO, or more recently RTR – “return to remote” – or RTH, short for “return to home.” 

A spokesperson for Omnicom Public Relations Group, which includes firms FleishmanHillard, Ketchum, Porter Novelli and more than a dozen specialist agencies, says agencies in specific markets are responsible for their own RTO plans. 

“We are monitoring the current situation with the latest variant and will continue to follow local government and health guidelines as we have since the beginning of the pandemic,” says the spokesperson. “Our agencies are responsible for planning their return to the office in coordination with their network and practice area leadership.” 

“Some markets around the world are permitting our offices to open, in certain cases, subject to restrictions and compliance requirements, such as occupancy limits, social distancing, contact tracing,” adds the spokesperson. “We continue to strongly encourage all of our non-vaccinated employees to get vaccinated and are providing flexible working arrangements to allow them to do so.“

As more companies put RTO on an indefinite hiatus, Microsoft has taken that position from the beginning. 

“We didn’t set a date,” says Frank Shaw, CVP for comms at Microsoft. “At our U.S. worksites, rather than forecasting a date for a full reopening, we have announced that we will fully reopen each U.S. worksite once our health criteria and local public health guidelines are met at each location.”

Once a site is cleared for reopening, “at that point we’ll communicate a 30-day transition period that provides time for employees to return to the work site,” says Shaw. 

That means Microsoft’s communications teams must stay on top of the latest developments, guidelines, news and scientific discoveries about the virus. 

“We continue to closely track new developments, follow the latest information and guidance from health and data experts, and respond to COVID-19’s highly dynamic nature,” Shaw explains. 

While U.S. offices are closed or only partially open, Shaw notes that Microsoft has some locations around the world that are fully open, such as in Belgium, Israel and mainland China. 

BAE Systems also gave up on a firm RTO for its Falls Church, Virginia, headquarters. Its previous goal of Labor Day came and went. 

“During the summer, employees and their managers agreed on their future schedules and whether an employee would return to the office every day, several days a week hybrid or would stay fully remote,” says Caitlin Hayden, SVP of communications at the multinational arms, security and aerospace company.

“We had hoped to begin implementing those schedules after Labor Day, but given continuing COVID-19 concerns, we instead moved to a soft opening that looked to employees and managers to use their discretion on the pace of transitioning to permanent schedules through the rest of the year,” says Hayden. 

She adds that the company has asked headquarters employees to be ready to implement their permanent schedules in the new year, though that could change with the state of the pandemic. 

But not every company is retracting its RTO plans in January.

“We are planning for a full return to office starting in January, and will continue to closely monitor the environment with the health and well-being of our employees as our priority,” says Holly Rockwood, VP and senior communications adviser in corporate comms at Wells Fargo. “Our essential employees have been in the workplace throughout the pandemic, and all locations continue to be available for use by vaccinated employees on a voluntary basis.”

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