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INNOVATION BEAT

Omicron puts office returns in ‘wait and see’ mode

Drift's downtown Boston office.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

It’s happening again. A new coronavirus variant, potentially more transmissible than prior versions, has thrust the world into a state of confusion, leading to borders closing, market turmoil, and a general feeling of never-ending exhaustion.

The World Health Organization has warned the new strain — called Omicron — poses a “very high” health risk globally. In the United States, President Biden said the variant is a “cause for concern, not for panic.” The Boston Herald reported Mayor Michelle Wu said the city is now in a “race against the clock” to get everyone vaccinated as the newly contagious variant spreads. Global financial markets dropped precipitously on Friday, but steadied after the holiday weekend, in reaction to the news.

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Amid this uncertainty, Boston’s technology companies are thrust back onto the front lines, wondering what this new strain will mean for returning to in-person work. After discussions with a number of tech companies this week, the mood can mostly be described as “wait and see.”

At Dell, which is one of the largest tech employers in Massachusetts, plans remain unchanged. US workers can return to the office on Jan. 4, company officials said. If they choose to go in, they will be required to be vaccinated or undergo a coronavirus test weekly. Unless a worker is required to be on-site, the decision to return in-person is voluntary, and up to discussions with supervisors.

For Boston’s Rapid7, a cybersecurity company, the plan is still to bring teams back into the office on Jan. 3. However, according to a company official, the firm is “closely watching as more is learned about the Omicron variant,” and could change plans as needed.

At Workhuman, a software firm based in Framingham, employees are still able to come back in-person whenever they choose, if they are fully vaccinated. But the conditions could change, if the science requires it, according to Steve Pemberton, Workhuman’s chief human resources officer.

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“The question initially was, ‘Have you been vaccinated?’” he said. “I think the new variant means you’re now going to be asking, ‘Have you had a booster shot?’”

Bradford Bell, a professor of human resources at Cornell University, said that any set return dates could change. When deciding on future plans, human resources managers will look for guidance on how effective vaccines are against the new variant, he said. They also will seek advice from medical experts on how many people at a time can come back into the office, as information about Omicron’s transmission rates and severity become clearer..

But the shifting landscape is certainly challenging, he said. Workers want transparency on return to office plans, but that is hard for office managers to provide, especially since they want to wait on sharing plans companywide until there is some certainty that they won’t change.

“It’ll be interesting to see if we ever get back to the office,” he said. “But hopefully sooner than later.”


Pranshu Verma can be reached at pranshu.verma@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @pranshuverma_.