Thu. Jun 30th, 2022

Many employers have refined hybrid work arrangements and experimented with rotating staff through the office to comply with physical distance guidelines.Fred Lum / The Globe and Mail

Concerns about the rapid spread of the Omicron variant are throwing a wrench into the company’s plans for a wider return to office in January, putting further pressure on local businesses that had benefited from the higher pedestrian traffic in commercial districts.

On Tuesday, Sun Life Financial Inc. said it put a pilot project back in office until the end of January and would not add more staff to the program, which was launched last summer, citing concerns about Omicron. The company was also considering additional security measures in its office, although the vast majority of its staff still work externally.

A day earlier, the Bank of Nova Scotia said a previously announced plan to start most employees on a gradual return to office on January 17 had been put on hold. Spokeswoman Clancy Zeifman said the bank “put its plans on hold” in response to the latest guidance from the Ontario government “and will reconsider the timing of the new year.”

The province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Kieran Moore, recently urged employers to keep employees in telework where possible, and Ontario and Toronto have delayed plans to bring more government employees back to the office.

Although most of Canada’s largest employers had not yet issued company-wide orders to bring employees back to work regularly, an increasing number of people had turned up at the offices either voluntarily or with gentle encouragement from their superiors. The advent of Omicron, on the eve of the Christmas holidays, now threatens to reverse this trend, at least in the short term.

In Toronto’s financial district, “traffic absolutely picked up,” said Lara Zink, CEO of Women in Capital Markets. “I think all that is put on hold.” As the number of COVID-19 cases ticks higher, bank employees are likely to be asked to stay home, she said.

For small businesses such as restaurants, cafes and barbers in city centers, a return to the office also meant the return of customers. A delay means that these companies have to stay longer with reduced pedestrian traffic.

Christine Leadman, executive director of Bank Street BIA in downtown Ottawa, said the pandemic has been devastating to businesses in her city center, which includes a number of federal government-owned office buildings.

“Our main streets are really suffering,” she said.

She said there appeared to be an increase in the number of employees returning to the office this fall, creating some optimism among her members. But she said a number of businesses in her district are raising concerns about the variant.

“It’s a serious concern for companies,” she said. “People who might have taken their lunch hour to go and get their hair done, or go and get the extra Christmas present that they missed … it’s all gone.”

Many employers have refined hybrid work arrangements and experimented with rotating staff through the office to comply with physical distance guidelines. But with the new variant creating renewed uncertainty about the government’s reopening plans, “many companies have now delayed their return-to-work strategies,” Rocco Rossi, chief executive of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, said in an email.

Telecommunications giant Telus Corp. aims for a “voluntary and limited” return to office from 31 January, but monitors developments around Omicron and will make a final decision in mid-January. Even when Telus offices reopen, the company expects about 90 percent of employees will still work externally.

“We are closely monitoring the situation and will immediately apply the necessary changes to our return plans to the office,” Erin Dermer, a spokeswoman for Telus, said in an email.

Manulife Financial Corp., the country’s largest insurance company, announced last month that it plans to reopen buildings on January 24 and implement hybrid work arrangements that will require staff to come three days a week. A spokesman for the company declined to comment on the status of this plan on Tuesday.

Other large banks and insurance companies, which have critical staff working on site but a majority of staff working externally, have repeatedly pushed back timelines for a broader return to the office and recently avoided setting fixed target dates. On Tuesday, spokesmen for several major financial institutions declined to provide updates on their expected timelines.

Even workers in jobs that were ahead of the march back to offices could be forced to retire. At banks, many traders have spent months working on rotating schedules that keep trading floors busy but below full capacity. But even they may be forced back to home offices set up in the first months of the pandemic.

“I suspect the trading floors will go into temporary closure until the data confirms what we are dealing with,” Ms. Zinc. “I would not be surprised if everyone was told to stay home until the end of January, until the whole effect of the holiday passes us by.”

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