Your boss is wrong: Why it's a mistake to return to offices as delta variant surges

·4 min read

With vaccine effectiveness against the delta variant dropping to perhaps as low as 39%, it’s pure folly to pursue a return to working in offices.

Make no mistake about the danger: The delta surge is forecast to grow much worse in the next few months.

Yet many large and mid-size companies, along with the federal government, are forcing employees who successfully worked from home during the height of the pandemic to return to the office. More than a third of workers have already returned, and most of the rest are slated to return by the end of summer or this fall, when schools will have reopened and delta variant cases are likely to soar.

Why is the federal government and companies such as Apple, Xerox, JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs, American International Group and Abbott Laboratories putting the health of their employees at serious risk? And why are they practically guaranteeing mass employee flight as part of the Great Resignation prompted by pressure to return to the office?

After all, surveys of employee preferences on returning to the office — even before the delta surge — showed that about half were willing to quit if not given their preferred work arrangements. The surveys revealed a quarter to a third of employees wanted full-time remote work, and more than half wanted a hybrid schedule of a day or two in the office.

Many already have quit due to employer plans to force them back to the office. Fears over the delta surge will undoubtedly prompt even more to quit rather than risk their health due to breakthrough infections.

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The reason so many large employers fail to listen to the concerns of employees, whether about their work preferences or their health, stems from dangerous errors in judgment called cognitive biases.

These mental blind spots lead to poor strategic and financial decision-making when evaluating options. They cause leaders to go with their gut and follow their personal preferences instead of relying on best practices.

Executives underestimate the threat

The biggest threat in underestimating the delta surge comes from the normalcy bias. This dangerous error in judgment leads us to underestimate the likelihood and impact of disruptive events.

Consider that we had evidence of COVID cases caused by the delta variant beginning to increase in June. We also had evidence in May of a surge in cases in countries with higher rates of vaccination than the U.S., including the United Kingdom and Israel.

Big employers pride themselves on making data-driven decisions. They had the data, and they didn’t have the excuse of not knowing about the danger of an explosive growth in COVID cases. Yet, despite the clear danger of delta, they insisted on forcing employees back to the office.

Another major mental blind spot at play, the planning fallacy, causes leaders to make overly optimistic plans and refuse to change them despite new evidence showing their folly. After all, changing your plans implies that you got them wrong in the first place.

Weak leaders frequently refuse to admit they are mistaken and acknowledge the need to change their plans. By contrast, strong leaders show the courage of changing their minds when new evidence shows a need to pivot.

Fortunately, a few companies are showing the courage to revise their plans. Yet many of the revisions are half steps rather than true pivots.

Apple, for instance, delayed the return to the office from September to October. Yet, the one-month delay fails to take into account that the delta variant is expected to peak in October.

Long-term problems may emerge

Apple and other large employers that are forcing employees back to the office need to face the reality that vaccine immunity may wane in the months ahead and other variants, such as delta plus, may emerge.

Delta is a short-term problem with a long-term tail of multiple similar scenarios. Not facing this unpleasant reality stems from a cognitive bias scholars call the ostrich effect, after the mythical notion that ostriches bury their heads in the sand when facing danger. Research suggests that denying negative reality is a top reason CEOs are fired.

Overcoming normalcy bias, planning fallacy and the ostrich effect in the return to the office requires relying on research-based best practices. That means a hybrid model of a day or two in the office for most employees, who should be able to move easily to full-time remote work when needed.

A substantial minority of employees should work full-time remotely, if they wish to do so and demonstrate effectiveness. This best practice maximizes the benefits of in-office collaboration for those employees who benefit from it most and helps to retain top talent that would leave if not permitted full-time remote work.

It also creates a company culture that embraces full-time remote work when needed for all employees.

Gleb Tsipursky is CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts and author of "Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Delta variant: What employers get wrong about return to the office

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