A solid majority of Utahns say they’re back to reporting to in-person work on a full-time basis, but the news comes as a slew of U.S. employers are responding to rising COVID-19 infection rates, and omicron concerns, by rethinking workplace decisions.
The data comes from a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll that found 57% of currently employed Utahns are back at their respective places of work while 43% remain in either remote work situations or some hybrid combination of in-person and remote toil.
Of those who aren’t commuting to work every day, 16% said they were doing their jobs entirely in a remote setting and 27% report they are in hybrid workplace situations.
The polling was conducted Nov. 18-30 by Dan Jones & Associates of 812 Utah registered voters. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.44 percentage points.
The survey results reflect a marked shift from earlier this year when a survey conducted by the Salt Lake Chamber’s Downtown Alliance found that 76% of downtown Salt Lake office employees were primarily working remotely, with 24% working some portion of the week from their downtown workplaces.
Following the release of that report in February, Weber State University sociology professor Marjukka Ollilainen, whose expertise includes the sociology of work and organizations, told the Deseret News that in-person experiences figure largely in how most employees view their work experiences.
“There’s a lot that we learn just by being in the same space,” Ollilainen said. “And for a lot of people, seeing your co-workers and colleagues is probably one of the best parts of the job.
“A lot of people will go to a crappy job if they have fun people to work with.”
The Deseret News poll results were logged before the first omicron variant case was confirmed in the U.S. on Dec. 1 and amid rising U.S. case counts mostly driven, according to public health officials, by the delta variant of the virus.
The expanding case counts and uncertainty about the emerging omicron variant are pushing employers of all sizes to rethink plans to bring employees back to in-person work settings.
Alphabet’s Google and the nation’s second largest automaker, Ford Motor Co., are among those once again delaying their return-to-office plans, while other businesses whose employees have already returned are considering adding extra precautions like requiring masks.
Meta, formerly known as Facebook, and ridesharing company Lyft separately announced last week that they’re letting workers delay their return when offices fully reopen early next year. Meta still plans to open its headquarters at the end of January but will allow workers to delay their return as late as June. Lyft says it won’t require workers to come back to its offices for all of next year, though they will fully reopen as planned in February.
Janelle Gale, vice president of human resources for Meta, said the latest decision recognizes “some aren’t quite ready to come back.”
The moves are the latest indication of how difficult it is for companies to set firm plans for their employees’ mandatory return as worries about a spike in new cases or new variants keep shifting deadlines. This fall, the delta variant spurred many big companies to postpone a mandatory return to early next year.
“A year and a half ago, we thought this would be for a very short time,” said Jeff Levin-Scherz, population health leader at Willis Towers Watson, a global advisory firm. “But the pandemic has thrown us many curves, and employers need to continue to be nimble.”
The firm’s survey of 543 employers with 5.2 million workers showed on average 34% of remote-capable employees remain remote, but that would decline to 27% by the first quarter of 2022. However, the survey was conducted before news of omicron surfaced.
The delayed plans are yet another blow to already struggling restaurants, bars, dry cleaners and other businesses that rely on office workers as patrons. That includes Salt Lake co-working pioneer Impact Hub that, due to the cancellation of in-person events and the exit of many shared workspace clients during the pandemic lockdown period, lost its ability to cover the costs associated with its membership with the global Impact Hub network and is now transitioning to new ownership.
Impact Hub co-owner, former Salt Lake City Councilman and current Executive Director of the Jordan River Commission Soren Simonsen said the downtown facility just wasn’t able to weather the loss of its main source of income during the worst of the public health crisis.
“We remained open and accessible but the pandemic had a huge impact on our operation,” Simonsen said. “Pre-pandemic, a third to half of our revenue was generated by programs and events at our space. We’re part co-working space but also members of a mission-driven international organization trying to move the needle around sustainability goals, using the work of entrepreneurs to help advance that.
“When everything locked down and we couldn’t do anything for months, that really just devastated a lot of our work.”
For those able to take advantage of remote work assignments, the change in workplace settings has had some definite advantages, including significant cost savings, and particularly so for those with lengthy commutes.
A July New York Times report found one of the biggest economic boons for those working from home was simply eliminating the time and costs related to getting to and from the office. That by itself, the Times reported, saves the average commuter five to 10 hours per week and is like getting a 10% to 20% raise, or around $7,000 to $15,000 per year.
The report also questions what, if anything, is keeping employers from tapping into those savings.
“With all the commute time freed up, what is to stop (employers) from simply asking employees to work longer from home — to prepare that report before the meeting starts in the morning or to answer emails or contact clients or file those forms at all hours of the day or night?” the report reads. “Blurring the lines between work and the rest of life does not have to benefit workers in the end. Indeed, it was the thing that worried people about working from home before the pandemic began.”
For now, there is plenty of data to suggest that not only did workers, overall, maintain or improve their productivity throughout pandemic conditions, but also find themselves in the power position when it comes to job opportunities, with labor shortages running rife in Utah and across the country.
Contributing: Associated Press
Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated the omicron variant was first detected in the United States on Nov. 1. It was detected on Dec. 1.