HARTFORD, Conn. — As concern about the recent surge in the coronavirus mounts, employers are facing the most uncertainty since the pandemic began two years ago, little able to predict when the workplace will return to something that resembles normal.
Travelers Cos., which employs thousands in downtown Hartford and is a global force in property-casualty insurance, told employees last week that it would indefinitely delay a broad-based return to the office set for Jan. 18, its eye on the spread of the new omicron variant of COVID-19.
CVS Health Corp., which owns Hartford-based health insurer Aetna, has made a similar decision to push back a wholesale return of office workers on Jan. 10 in a hybrid model of two or three days a week. CVS said it is monitoring the situation but has not set a new date.
Some employers such as The Hartford Financial Services Group, which employs thousands at its headquarters in Hartford’s Asylum Hill, appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach. Earlier this month, the property-casualty insurer said it expected a broad-based return on Jan. 18 but declined to elaborate on that statement last week.
The return of office workers is being watched closely as an indicator of the winding down of the pandemic and could have, experts say, far-reaching implications for culture and innovation inside of companies. The revitalization of urban areas around corporate offices, such as in downtown Hartford, that depend on the foot traffic of workers and corporate events also hangs in the balance, they say.
In downtown Hartford, workers are still dominant patrons of restaurants, bars, shops and other businesses. Apartment construction in the last decade is building a residential population but it is not yet large enough to support those businesses alone and to foster the opening of more.
Travelers chairman and chief executive Alan Schnitzer was frank in his assessment in a letter to employees announcing the delay: “Your next question is no doubt, ‘Until when?’ I wish I could tell you. Until we have a better sense of what course the pandemic is going to take, we just don’t have clarity to answer that question.”
How quickly answers emerge is anyone’s guess, experts say, in a once-in-a-century health crisis that seemed to be on the wane after the introduction of vaccines, only to unexpectedly surge with the emergence of stronger variants such as delta and omicron.
David Souder, a professor of management at the UConn School of Business in Storrs, said employers of all sizes have had to wrestle with serving customers and, at the same time, figure out how to get employees working together as teams despite working remotely for almost two years.
“And it’s different by industry, and it’s even more different for each company,” Souder said. “There’s no template that you can just follow. No one has ever done it before. Companies that were born in what we would now call a hybrid or virtual environment were designed differently from companies that were forced there.”
The pandemic already is dramatically reshaping the workplace at employers such as jet engine maker Pratt & Whitney. Pratt says it plans to make working from home permanent for thousands of salaried workers at its East Hartford headquarters, with access to meeting space when needed.
As the pandemic drags on, there could be other, less obvious consequences of working remotely for so long, said David Griggs, president and chief executive of the MetroHartford Alliance, the regional chamber of commerce.
“The longer we are in this pandemic and remote-work environment, the more some of the subtleties start to become affected, like the culture,” Griggs said. “It’s really difficult to maintain company culture when there’s nobody inside the four walls of the company.”
Culture drives why an employee works for a company and the overarching principles that guide the thought and motivations that go into that work, Griggs said.
“Those can be lost over time,” Griggs said.
The pandemic may have shown companies can be flexible, as employers suddenly shifted gears in early 2020, sending employees home to work and meeting by Zoom, Souder said.
“The downside is that all that creative energy that has been applied to this, how to react to a crisis, rather than how to be proactive about creating a better future,” Souder said. “I don’t think we’re thinking a lot about that.”
That isn’t necessarily true of every employer, Souder said, “but a lot of our talented managers have been spending their time helping their folks get through this.”
There are other concerns, Griggs said, including the difficulty in establishing formal — or even informal — mentors for young professionals seeking advice and guidance in a workplace that’s remote and not prone to unscheduled, spontaneous conversation.
Holding back on a broad-based return to the office is a logical decision, Griggs said, considering the surge in the omicron variant and looming questions about just how deadly it might be. Companies want to protect their most important asset: their employees, Griggs said.
But this delay in the return to the workplace, Souder said, may be showing more of a shift than previous ones.
“You remember the phrase at the beginning was ‘cancel everything’ and now, it’s more selective,” Souder said.
Travelers CEO Schnitzer wrote to employees that they could come into the office on a voluntary basis if they have certified with the insurer that they are fully vaccinated.
CVS has instituted a similar policy.
“We don’t want to pretend there is more certainty than there is, right?” Souder said. “We hope that it ends in ‘22 or at least becomes more manageable in ‘22, but there’s no way to know.”