More Than a Third of Businesses Still Uncertain When Offices Will Reopen

More Than a Third of Businesses Still Uncertain When Offices Will Reopen

But more than one-third intend to have workers back in the office by early 2021
Office social distancing

After being shuttered by the pandemic, some schools, retail establishments and entertainment venues are beginning to open their doors. But many businesses are still uncertain about when — and if — they will follow suit, new research suggests.

More than a third of employers (35%) said they didn’t know when they will reopen their workplaces and/or allow employees back into the office, according to a new survey of business leaders by The Conference Board, a policy research institute.

While businesses in some regions of the country appear more eager to open back up than others, most employers are taking proactive steps to protect their employees amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Uncertainty most common on the coasts

Some businesses are making tentative plans to have staff return to their workplaces in the next few months. Nearly 4 in 10 businesses surveyed said they plan to have employees back by the first quarter of 2021, while another 13% of companies reported that they never closed their doors since the pandemic began.

Miami business leaders had the highest level of uncertainty about when offices and other work sites would reopen, with 46% of respondents unable to predict a date. Miami was followed by:

  • Seattle (43%)
  • San Diego (42%)
  • Washington, D.C. (41%)
  • San Francisco (41%)

And while the potential discovery of an effective vaccine has been largely viewed as a means to get society back to normal, only 5% of businesses said the availability of such a vaccine would be a significant factor in their timetable for reopening the workplace.

Employee input was a factor for some companies but not others, with 60% of employers having surveyed their workers to find out if they were comfortable with the idea of coming back to the workplace while the pandemic continues. An earlier survey had found that employees have been slow to embrace the idea.

Safety a top concern for businesses

As businesses continue to monitor the pandemic, many are taking steps to keep their employees as safe as possible:

  • 82% of employers are buying safety equipment, such as masks, thermometers and sanitization supplies
  • 80% are implementing new workplace policies that limit in-person contact and promote social distancing
  • 78% are getting the office ready for workers through deep cleaning, disinfecting and similar actions

Some employers are also taking additional steps in response to the pandemic:

  • 19% of businesses are offering childcare options for workers, including flexible scheduling and on-site childcare
  • 13% are introducing enhanced safety measures for workers who take public transportation

In addition, 46% plan to have employees work in staggered shifts in order to ensure that fewer people are in the office at the same time.

Once employees are back on site, many will have to undergo additional screening — 67% of companies said they would require that returning workers be screened for COVID-19 or have their temperatures checked regularly.

However, some of these last tactics may prove to be unpopular. For example, a previous survey found that a majority of professionals were against the idea of contact tracing in the workplace.

Methodology: The Conference Board surveyed more than 1,100 business leaders from Aug. 19, 2020 through Aug. 26, 2020. The sample primarily consisted of C-suite executives, vice presidents and senior managers across 20 metropolitan statistical areas in the United States.

Tamara E. Holmes

Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, DC-based writer who covers personal finance, entrepreneurship and careers.