What Will COVID-19 Vaccines Mean in Terms of a Return to Work?
The last two weeks have brought some of the most encouraging news since the start of the pandemic. Pfizer (PFE) and Moderna (MRNA) both reported preliminary data on their vaccines, showing effective rates of 90% and 94%, respectively. That boosted markets and raised hopes that an end could be in sight to the long string of stay-at-home orders and retail shutdowns.
What it means for office workers around the country is still a bit uncertain, though.
Experts have previously talked about a future of work that was much more focused on virtual offices and a hybrid model, that saw employees going into the physical workspace a couple of days each week. But the possibility of a vaccine makes the idea of returning to the office full-time more tenable – assuming that office is still there.
The cash spend for office space is typically the second highest expense for companies after employee salaries. And after nine months of a pandemic, many businesses are reevaluating whether they need to have a central physical location as big as they currently do. Real-estate brokerage firm CBRE (Coldwell Banker Richard Ellis) estimates the pandemic could reduce the need for office space by 15%.
“There is a large number of companies that have already made plans to not go back to business as usual,” says Tom Smith, an associate professor of finance at Emory University's Goizueta Business School. “The companies I’ve consulted with or reached out to, some of them have bought out their leases. They’re not going to go back to that model. Companies figured they had flushed tens of thousands of dollars every month on an office building that nobody was at.”
The news about both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is certainly welcome, but psychologists warn that workers (and employers) shouldn’t make any drastic changes to their return to work plans yet.
“It’s not a complete reset, but it’s an injection of hope in the workplace,” says Cathleen Swody, an organizational psychologist and co-founder at consulting firm Thrive Leadership. “Things will get back to normal. It’s now not just this never-ending cycle of pandemic as we go into winter. There’s hope on the horizon.”
Even one of the creators of the Pfizer vaccine – Professor Ugur Sahin, co-founder of BioNTech (BNTX) – told the BBC he doesn’t expect life to return to normal until next winter.
There’s also the hurdle of whether all employees will be willing to take one of the vaccines when they are available. Some may distrust the safety due to the speed at which they were created. Others might object to vaccines in general.
That could put some companies in the awkward position of considering mandatory vaccination policies. While there are no legal hurdles preventing businesses from doing so (with an exception for people who have religious objections to vaccinations), it puts an additional strain on the human resources department and could raise some employee conflict.
And while many people are eager to return to and office with a clearly defined workday, there’s certain to be a contingent who have gotten used to the relaxed dress codes and later wake-up times of the no-commute life.
“You get comfortable in your routine,” says Smith. “There’s always going to be pushback when the routine changes for some employees.”
Some workers might also find there are no jobs to go back to. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report, issued last month, posited the COVID-19 crisis could lead to an accelerated pace of automation, which could have long term consequences for employees in certain industries.
“The technological disruptions which were in their infancy in previous editions of the Future of Jobs Report are currently accelerated and amplified alongside the COVID-19 recession,” the report says. “It is of increasing urgency to expand social protection, including support for retraining to displaced and at-risk workers as they navigate the paths towards new opportunities in the labor market.”
Ultimately, the impact of these vaccines on getting employees back to the workplace will depend on the profession and the managers, of course. Some jobs, like college professors, work better with in-person interaction. Others, such as sales, don’t necessarily need to have workers in the office to get the job done. Meanwhile, many workers with children won’t be able to even consider returning to an office full-time until essential services like school and childcare are back in place.
“As much as we can get back to a normal flow of craziness in our personal lives, then businesses will get back to theirs,” says Smith.
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.