This summer, as many office buildings remained nearly empty and CEOs grappled with the question of bringing back remote workers to shared spaces, an unofficial "reopening" date emerged among companies such as Google, Facebook, and Uber: July 2021.
Organizers of major live events, like movie releases, concerts, and even the 2020 Olympics, also announced that they'd begun preparations to welcome back audiences next summer.
While experts are cautioning business owners not to rely on that schedule, learning more about how these companies set next summer as the target will give you more tools for determining your own return date.
Save the Date--or Don't
One thing the Googles and the Facebooks of the world are not counting on: a broadly distributed vaccine or even a widespread return to normality.
Planning for a return to business as usual by next July is "wishful thinking," according to Tista Ghosh, a CDC-trained epidemiologist and former chief medical officer of the state of Colorado, who is now a senior medical director at digital health care company Grand Rounds. While it's possible that a coronavirus vaccine will be approved by then, she says, it's still unclear how effective any vaccine will be and how quickly and easily it can be produced and distributed on a national scale.
Still, corporations like Google are hiring consulting firms and epidemiologists to help them gather and interpret large amounts of information about Covid-19's effects on the public. Facebook cited "guidance from health and government experts" in its public statements about its July reopening. And the International Olympic Committee is working with the World Health Organization and the Japanese government to monitor Covid-19 outbreaks.
Large companies are making timeline calls based on a host of factors, including observations about competitors, customer surveys, analysis of behavioral trends, and social media activity. They're even tracking people's movements via aggregated cell phone data, according to Darren Mahoney, co-founder and chief analytics officer at CompassRed. His company, a data-analytics agency in Wilmington, Delaware, helps big organizations like professional sports leagues and convenience-store chains study market trends and make predictions; during the pandemic, its clients have become increasingly interested in surveying employees, customers, and other stakeholders.
Companies thinking they may be able to return safely to the workplace sooner than July 2021 should likewise not be discouraged, according to Mahoney. "Big firms can afford to throw a really long timeline out," he says.
What's more, they almost can't afford not to. For companies with large workforces--which are harder to bring back to the office on short notice--extending a remote-work policy a full year allows employees to better plan living and working arrangements, particularly their children's school year, before having to return to a desk. The Wall Street Journal reported that these were factors in Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai's decision to keep Google's offices closed. An Uber spokeswoman expressed a similar sentiment to the San Francisco Chronicle: "As a company built on flexible working, we want to provide our team with flexibility, choice, and longer-term clarity so they can plan ahead."
In other words, when announcing the July 2021 return, many companies are factoring in the time it will take their workers to re-acclimate to office life as much as they are factoring in the likelihood of a vaccine.
There are other business considerations that may make a July 2021 reopening necessary for these organizations, even if Covid-19 has yet to be neutralized. The Olympics, for instance, are unique, quadrennial competitions with countless stakeholders worldwide. IOC president Thomas Bach indicated in March that canceling the Games wasn't an option. Instead, the IOC's announcement of new dates stated that holding the Games exactly one year later than planned would give organizers "the maximum time" to deal with the effects of the virus while minimizing disruption to the international sports calendar, including the 2022 Winter Olympics.
One Size Doesn't Fit All
Reopening the office earlier or later than July 2021 depends largely on what your business goals are, says Patrick Callahan, CompassRed's co-founder and CEO. If you are worried about liability, or more concerned with maintaining your business than with growing it, staying remote could be more logical, he says. On the other hand, firms that need to meet customers face-to-face, or that rely on getting people together to spur innovation, might be more eager to reopen their offices. Many companies are bringing workers back gradually, rather than risk the damage that could come from reopening prematurely and having to shut down again.
It will make sense for some small businesses to give up their office space and stay remote for the foreseeable future, says Raj Kumar, founding president and editor-in-chief of Devex, a media company that provides on-the-ground coverage of crises and disasters for international development organizations and major corporations. Kumar puts his own company, which has about 100 employees globally, in that category. "We had a lease expiring, and we didn't renew it," he adds. "And why would you, right now, if you really don't have a clear idea of when things are going to get better?"
Local Experts are Better Experts
While weighing broader national trends, small and midsize companies should monitor public-health data at the hyper-local level, according to Ghosh. To determine when to start bringing workers back, she says business owners should track infection rates and per-capita testing in their own communities via local health department websites or nonprofit resources like Covid Act Now (with which her company is a partner). To get the most timely information, she recommends contacting your local health department directly and trying to develop a relationship. Then, she says, take the recommended safety measures to protect employees on the job.
There's still a lot to learn about how the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads and how to contain it, and as more information comes to light, it's possible that some companies will move their July 2021 target, Ghosh says. And others will live with the uncertainty and continue a gradual return to workplaces. "I want to emphasize that it is possible to reopen safely," Ghosh says. "We just need to take a slow, methodical, stepwise approach."